The Quarrel (4253 words) The smoke from Hank’s wood stove hung low in the morning fog as he stepped quietly from his front door. He was careful not to wake Margaret, preferring not to see her, not this morning, not after the way they had gone to bed with such a painful silence between them. The porch boards creaked under his wool stocking feet as he tiptoed to the rocking chair to pull on and tie his boots. His Labrador companion, Pal, teased with quick runs to the end of the front path, returning to Hank for a quick scratch behind the ears, then off again. It was his favorite time of day, up early, listening and watching to the woods around him waking up. For too many years, by his count, this special morning time was spent in his pickup, coffee in hand, driving the nearly twenty miles to the lumberyard he once owned with his dad. Since closing the business and selling the land two years ago, mornings were his once again. He cherished each moment in the expanse of woods beyond the lot he cleared himself years ago after he and Margaret married, and they borrowed money from his dad to buy the acreage. A Walmart now stood where his great-grandfather first homesteaded near town and started milling the maples and oaks from the then abundant hardwood forests. A generation later, Grandpa Senderson and Hank’s dad, both gone now, then started Sendersons Lumber at the site of the old mill. They would not have approved Hank’s selling the land, but in Hank’s way of reckoning the money was right. He and Margaret were able to retire at 65 with enough to live modestly. Perhaps they could even leave something behind for their sons. Nothing stayed the same forever. He pulled his bright orange wool stocking cap well over his ears, and pushed his way out of the rocking chair to join Pal who now led the way like a drum major at a parade, head held high and tail wagging a rhythm. Hank felt in the pocket of his down parka for the doggy treats he kept there and pulled on thick mittens over his already cold fingers. Old growth hardwood forest surrounded the clearing that held their modest but modern log home and a few outbuildings. Over the years Hank had carved a few trails through his property, most connecting with the adjacent state forest where summer hiking and winter snowmobile trails were maintained by the forest service. He began his favorite route this cold December morning up a gentle rise towards a ridgeline that provided a commanding view of the forest below. The crunch of undisturbed snow beneath Hank’s boots was the only sound. Here and there the trail was crisscrossed through fresh snowfall with animal tracks, a reminder to Hank that he was only a visitor in these woods. Small footprints of squirrels were most plentiful, but deer and rabbits had also left their mark. He kept an eye out for signs of the more elusive fox and coyote. Once on the ridge, Hank would follow the trail’s contour around the small but deep Emerald Lake until it dropped to a slough that was impassable during the summer months. Looking behind from the ridge, he could still see traces of smoke from his wood stove that he stoked before leaving so that Margaret would wake up to a warm kitchen. He looked down through the tallest of the trees below, some of them topping eighty feet, now standing bare in winter nakedness. Here and there along the trail a massive oak or maple lay on its side having surrendered to wind and time. In those clearings hundreds of tiny maples competed for soil and sun, now barely poking young branches through two feet of winter white. Only the hardiest would survive. Hank brushed away small ice crystals that were forming on his unshaven face from moisture dripping from his nose and the small clouds of warm breath that marked every exhale. The temperature was still in the single digits of early morning. When Hank started down the far side of the ridge towards the slough he knew that the ground would be solid from enough winter days and nights below freezing to allow him to make a circular route through the slough towards home. In the winter the lazy ribbon of the creek carved an icy path through the reeds and cattails of the slough before opening into the expanse of Emerald Lake. The creek could run fifteen feet across in spots and had holes deep enough to hold walleyes year-round. Hank had traversed the ice many times in winter, and this morning he gave little thought to walking across it. In the moment there was nowhere else that Hank would prefer to be, other than perhaps back in bed with Margaret with her legs over his shoulders in the throes of passion. He laughed at the thought. Those days had been gone almost as long as the color in his now gray hair. It would be enough just to be held by her, for her to whisper in his ear that she loved him, for all to be forgiven once again. What he said and how he said it hurt her, hurt her something awful, he knew. And Margaret just hadn’t seemed herself for weeks. She was tired so often, out of sorts, her ready smile replaced by a dour look that did not become her. The walk was nearly five miles and would take him a good two hours. With the recent snowfall Hank’s long stride struggled some for a firm grip on the loose snow that covered the trail. Maybe Margaret would have bacon or sausage frying when he returned, or at least a fresh pot of coffee brewing. Maybe she would be waiting for him with a warm embrace and an apology, but he didn’t want to be disappointed. He knew that it was his place to make amends. He began to rehearse just what he would say. Often after they quarreled he stewed for hours or days while she would act like nothing happened. The chill in her demeanor would hold him at arm’s length until he could take it no longer and he would tentatively approach her and they would start anew. Hank silently resolved to do better this time. He would give her his apology and his love when he returned. He sought serenity in the forest, but felt only deep regret. He knew that he was in the wrong for shouting at her, and he would say so when he got home. The argument stung him and he had reacted. Preoccupied as he was as he walked, he understood why her words hurt him. “I have something I need to ask you, Hank,” Margaret had started just as they finished eating dinner, speaking in a serious tone and with a troubled look that put him on guard. “It’s about my brother. I know you don’t think too highly of him, but he’s my flesh and blood,”. “What does he want this time? I sure as hell hope it’s not more money,” Hank had responded. “Actually, money, yes, just one last time. A short-term loan. He’s about to lose the farm.” “How much did he ask you for?” Margaret couldn’t look Hank in the eyes as she answered, her voice so low he strained to hear, “Ten thousand.” “Ten? Did you say ten thousand? No way! We’ve worked hard for what we have. No damn way!” “He says he hasn’t sold last year’s crops yet, has them in storage, he’s waiting on prices going up. He’ll be able to pay us back as soon as he sells, but he’s overdue on his land payments.” “Bullshit! Your brother is full of it. He’s lying. No farmer I talk to thinks prices are going up any time soon. I’ll bet anything he’s already sold…he blew the damn money…he either drank it up or he used it to pay bad debt he already had.” At that, Margaret had gotten up from the table, brought dishes to the sink, and turned her back to Hank. “You are saying my brother is lying to me.” “Damn right I’m saying he’s lying. He is! Don’t you see it? Your brother is a drunk just like my old man and yours, too. You know as well as I do that a drunk can’t be trusted.” By this point, Hank was no longer talking. He was yelling. “We lent him five goddam thousand dollars two years ago and he hasn’t made any effort to pay us back one red cent. Now here he is looking to take advantage of his sister’s kind heart for twice that, ten thousand? No way.” Hank had pounded his fist on the table. Margaret was silent, keeping her back to Hank while he continued to rant, “Don’t you see it? Your brother’s best friends, his only friends, are Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels.” Margaret did not say a word. Hank saw her shoulders shuddering, but did not stop, “That’s why he’s broke all the damn time. It isn’t right for us to be bailing his ass out and we’re not going to do it!” Finally Margaret had turned around and faced Hank, tears streaming down her face, “He’s my brother. He and Molly, they will lose that farm. Then what?” “It’s not up to us. I’m not going to do it. No!” Margaret shot Hank a look of contempt as she left the kitchen for the bedroom. Hank shivered, as much from the memory of the fight as from the cold. His cheeks tingled from the morning air. The rest of him was warm enough as long as he kept moving with layers of thermals and wool from head to toe. His heart had been pounding since he had taken on the incline to the ridge, but he didn’t want to slow down. He was breathing harder than he wanted to, and he cursed getting old. There had been a time when he could have run this route without breaking a sweat; but now he was, at 67, no spring chicken, as Margaret liked to say. Finally he stopped, pulled off his mittens, and reached in one coat pocket to retrieve his water bottle and the other to pull out the plastic bag that held Pal’s treats. The golden lab knew the routine and ran back to Hank and stood expectantly; gulping down what Hank offered him, returning to the trail when the bag was stuffed back in Hank’s pocket. Hank marveled at the silence of the winter woods, now disturbed only by the rat-tat-tat of a distant woodpecker. Closer by was the sound of the creak of tree against tree as the wind was now on a steady blow. He looked up and saw the trunk of a toppled maple that had been caught halfway to the ground and hung in the branches of a large oak like a wild animal trapped in a net. He had quickly chilled by the momentary pause, and he realized that it was colder than he had thought when he set out from the house. He now wished he had worn another layer, or waited until later for his walk, but he wanted this walk, wanted to clear his mind after last night. He quickened his pace to get down the far side of the ridge, through the slough, and past the creek. Mature oaks bordered the path, bearded and grandfatherly with their rumpled bark and prominent burrs, standing as patriarchs of the forest. Today they stood silent, naked, cold, and aloof, snubbing Hank with an arrogant silence as he passed, as though they knew how he’d spoken to Margaret. Trees were so much friendlier when dressed with leaves. The force of the wind caught Hank by surprise as he turned to start his descent from the ridge towards the slough. He pulled up his collar and tugged at his stocking cap. He glanced to the northwest into the face of the wind and he saw what looked like snow clouds moving towards him. The trail sloped sharply down to the slough and towards Mission Creek. Once across it he’d be roughly half way. Most often on these walks Hank’s mind was clear, filled only with the sensation of the woods as though in a transcendental state. Today was different. Today Hank walked with heaviness in his heart and a preoccupation about last evening when he and Margaret fought. She had gone to bed early while he stayed out by the wood stove, each self-righteously feeling wronged and misunderstood. Before his walk this morning he left a note by the coffeemaker telling her he was sorry. He did not write on the note that he loved her. He wanted her to say it first, just one time, so it wasn’t always him. As he walked he imagined her warmly greeting him when he returned to their log home and her holding him in that tender embrace of forgiveness that he so wanted. He had been so worried about her for weeks, had been urging her to go to the doctor because she was so often tired. She had been brushing him off saying it was only her age, that they weren’t spring chickens any more. So there was an undercurrent of unease deep within Hank Senderson this December morning that interfered with the solitude he usually found in the forest. As he descended the hill towards the creek the ridge behind him blocked the wind and the sun now burned bright in the eastern sky, hinting of a warming that was never to come. Pal now walked alongside him nuzzling up to the coat pocket that hid the treats. Hank dropped a hand to pet his companion and he felt comforted by the dog’s presence. The cattails and reeds of the slough were bent and broken. The ground beneath Hank’s feet was solid as he approached the creek. With one boot he kicked away layers of snow off the ice at the creek’s edge. With one foot on shore and hanging onto a young maple, he stomped on the creek ice with his full weight. His boot bounced back and reassured him that it was solid and safe. Hank knew that rivers and creeks were tricky in the wintertime. The ice would be most fragile where the current ran the strongest and where the afternoon sun had its way. He broke off a stout stick from a fallen nearby branch and began across the creek pounding the stick ahead of him on the ice just to be sure. Pal had already scampered across and was waiting on the far shore when it happened. Suddenly, the stick Hank was using for a probe broke through with a sickening gurgling pop. Hank turned to retreat. Then first one leg plunged into the frigid water, then the other, both to just below his knees. He fell backwards, his backside hitting the ice hard and breaking through. His hands went behind in a futile effort to stop his fall and the cold creek water saturated his mittens as he sank to the bottom. Before he was able to get his legs under him to stand he was totally immersed in the freezing water of Mission Creek. Icy water rushed into his lungs as an involuntary gasp opened his mouth and he sucked in the creek when his head dropped below the surface. He came up coughing, sputtering, and struggling for air. Pal barked helplessly. Hank was under for only an instant, but long enough to soak him head to toe. He gathered himself, got his feet under his large frame, rose, and sloshed to the dog’s side, breaking the icy surface as he went, only by luck avoiding deeper holes just to either side. Once on shore, he put his hands on his knees, coughing, spitting, heart pounding, and chest heaving. His entire body shook from cold, fear, and shock. Finally catching his breath, he cursed loudly. No part of him was dry. Every muscle, every bone, every nerve, every part of him was cold, dangerously cold. His morning walk was now a quest for survival. A rush of adrenaline pushed his brain to panic and he broke into a run along the path, Pal by his side. The thermal underwear, wool pants, sweater, and goose down jacket were water-logged and heavy and he soon realized that his 67 year old legs would not carry him home with such weight. He stopped running, looked to the sky where he could see fast moving clouds from the west about to overtake the still rising sun. The wind, sharp and unfriendly, blew droplets of ice across his cheeks. Panic has killed the best of men. Hank’s father taught him this. Hank taught this same lesson to his own two sons. This lesson was taught for now, this moment, this time of all times in his life. He fought to slow his breathing and to control his thoughts. “Count to ten, Hank, count to ten,” he heard his father’s voice say to him. He was less than three miles from home. He did not want to die from hypothermia in these very woods that he loved, not this way, not now. In this moment Hank thought of Margaret and the silent evening they spent, going to bed without a loving word. “One, two, three….” He took off his wool cap and squeezed what water he could from it before pulling it tightly back over his already frozen hair. Then he took off his mittens, one by one, wringing out the wool liners as best he could before pushing them back in the buckskin outers. Next he removed his down jacket and wrung the cold creek water from the down. He pulled off his wet sweater and put the freezing jacket over his thermal top as he twisted what water he could from the wool. Shivering, he quickly slipped out of the jacket once again and pulled the wet sweater back over his head. He sat on an oak log and slipped his mittens off to untie his boots with trembling fingers. He pulled each boot from his feet and pushed the felt liners against the side of the log to remove what water he could from them. Then he removed each wool sock and twisted them until they stopped dripping. With difficulty he pulled the wet socks back on his feet before standing up to pull off his wool pants to wring them as he had the other clothes. Although Hank moved as quickly as he could through all of this, he was chilled to the bone and shivering uncontrollably by the time he again was dressed. Now back in his soaked and quickly freezing clothes he set out towards home. Hank knew that he was on the brink of hypothermia. He fought to contain the fear that threatened to overcome his ability to reason. He walked as fast as he could, knowing that this would bring warmth to his legs and torso. He kept his arms swinging briskly. His jacket stiffened as the water it held turned to ice. He put one foot in front of the other as best he could, knowing that each step brought him closer to the warmth of the wood stove he had stoked before setting out. He thought about sending Pal home to alert Margaret that he needed help, but she might not know why the dog came back on its own. And Hank did not want to be alone. As he walked, Hank reassured himself by talking to Pal until his teeth chattered so that he could not speak, “We’re going to make it, Pal. It’s not that damn cold out here anyway.” Hank focused on the trail. This same winter forest that, just moments earlier had embraced him with solitude and beauty was now his adversary. He no longer saw the trees, footprints, or signs of new life or old. He thought only of Margaret. He wished that she was with him now. He wished that he had never upset her, that he had held his temper, that he had been a better husband, that he had woke her this morning to tell her how much he loved her. He was determined to get home to set things right. He would tell her that they would give her brother the ten thousand and be done with it. The morning air had not yet made it over ten degrees. If lucky, the sky maybe held a few more minutes of sun before the clouds hid that emerging warmth from him. He imagined a search party finding him frozen, stiff, face-down on the path, Pal by his side. The thought scared him. That fear fueled him. His hands felt the cold first, then his feet, especially his toes. He tried to curl and flex them as he walked. At least he could still feel them. He knew that was good. He walked with an awkward stiffness as the wet wool of his trousers had turned to ice. If only he had dry matches or even a cell phone, but he did not. Hank made his way back up out of the slough and onto the ridge. Once on the downhill side he would be about a mile from home. Making it this far gave him hope that he would make it the rest of the way. Part of him wanted to give in to the pain and weariness that gripped his body. Determination drove him towards home. He counted the steps as he walked, one…two…three…when he got to ten he started over. Ten steps at a time, he promised himself that he would not give up. Cold and embarrassed, but thankful to be with her, he would have quite a story to tell Margaret. Last night surely would be forgotten. His pace quickened while his mind flooded with stories he had heard of frozen death in the north woods. He saw his own body lying rigid in the snow only steps from home. His shivering continued. He felt a depth of cold previously unknown to him. He kept his eyes focused on Pal, now holding just steps ahead. Finally he could first smell, then see, the smoke from his chimney as it drifted towards the now cloudy sky. Then he could see home. He started to run as best he could in his suit of ice. One…two…three…one…two…three…. He burst through the door expecting to see Margaret at the kitchen table with her morning coffee, but the kitchen was empty and the house silent. He could see his note lying, apparently unread, still on the table. He yelled her name as he began to strip off his clothes. He left them in a wet and melting pile by the front door. He ran, now naked, to the wood stove where he stood in the life-giving glow. He turned himself from front to back then back to front and soaked the heat into his bare flesh much as his clothes had taken on the freezing cold of the creek. Finally he stopped shivering. The pain left his fingers and toes. He headed for the bedroom for warm and dry clothes. He saw Margaret’s silhouette under the winter quilt her mother had made for them and he marveled that she was still sleeping. He smiled at the thought that she had slept while he faced such challenge to his life. He wanted to shout, he wanted to wake her, he wanted her to greet him and shout for joy that he was alive. Hank made no effort at quiet then. He wanted her awake. He wanted to tell her what happened. He wanted to tell her that he was sorry, that he loved her and didn’t want to fight. He grabbed his bathrobe from the hook on the bathroom door and cinched it tight around him. “Margaret,” he said, at first with some moderation. Then, “Margaret! Wake up! Margaret!” She did not stir. He went to her and sat on the side of the bed. With a hand on her shoulder he shook her and repeated her name. When the quilt fell away Hank was startled by the sight of her colorless face. She remained motionless. “Margaret,” he repeated, this time softly as he put his hand to her mouth wanting to feel her breath. Hank could not say when he realized that she was gone. He sat there for quite a time with one hand on her cheek and the other on the side of her neck feeling for a pulse. Then he lay down with her. He pulled her limp body close. Hank held Margaret as if he could give the life of his that was just saved to her…as though it was his to give. He clenched his tear-filled eyes and, with all of his might, he willed her to live. In a trembling voice he begged her not to leave him. He screamed it. He demanded it. “Don’t go, Margaret! Don’t go! Please don’t go! What will I do without you?” Her lifeless body shook with his sobs as though they were one. Tears erupted from deep inside of him, tears that seemed to have no end.