The Lonely Battle

Snow fell, silent and thick. It shortened space and rendered all sound muffled. My four wheel drive truck was essentially useless without the tire chains I had not thought to put on. The internet, a model of communication, went out first. I managed a quick call through to my wife before the phones went down. I felt isolated, but comforted. My wood stove raged with firewood cut, split, stacked and dried the year before. White oak deadfall, mostly, it provided me with heat in its last gasp in recognizable form. The ashes would rejoin the carbon cycle in my gardens and supply the lye necessary for building rudimentary rock walls and joining long-forgotten bricks, pushed aside in the forest for nearly fifty years into a path to be trodden by my infant son in the spring.

The electricity failed soon after. There was a blink, as swift as the eye brushing away a microbe of irritation. The inevitable click and whir of computer backup systems was the only sure sign that our power grid, if you can call a solitary line on a pole such a thing, was doomed for failure. The hush of the falling snow made the fall of a small pine onto the conduit silent. The power blinked off, sure to be lost for a few days.

I stared into the fireplace, alone in a warm house with nothing but memories. Aching moments of time past, of beaches and mountains and the distant pounding of surf. Recollections of past loves, all trodden under the wheel of time, jerked into the present like a sudden bed of lemon grass in the early spring as the plow passes through the wet earth for the season’s first planting.
The house was still and unbearably silent. The tick of a teapot, set over the glowing cast iron, was the only sound, save that of the popping of the firewood as it reluctantly released its heat for my comfort. Left to my own devices, with no one to cook for, entertain or monitor my actions, I thought of the bottle of bourbon I had hidden away nearly one year before.

Every addict, at first, has a secret stash. I told myself, as do so many others, that it served as a symbolic reminder of what I had become. In reality, it is like a beloved blanket, hidden away by a teenage boy, who knows that comfort can be found if the night becomes too dark, or when a broken heart becomes too painful.

That night, as the snow fell and only the trees to serve witness, I thought of my stash. It was an excellent bottle of bourbon, I remembered. The fire seemed to agree, as the flames bobbed and nodded in agreement. I tried to think of my son and wife, but I reasoned with myself that they would never know.

That I had been pointedly and repeatedly admonished by doctors that even one more binge could, and most likely would, kill me seemed to just not matter. I began to wish for company, half believing that I would hike out of the snow covered mountains and make my way the three miles to the nearest store, where I could stay busy pouring wine and preparing comfort food for others.

The other half, then the stronger counterpoint, argued that I should celebrate my sobriety. After all, it argued, everyone else had forgotten. It had been nearly a year, so of course I could handle just one or two drinks. I pondered this as my beloved Manx cat stood silent guard, restless as usual inside. As wild as his ancestors, he distrusted anything that may be a trap, a trait inherited and fostered by his experience with man.

His gaze was impenetrable as I made my point aloud to him. He seemed to not care, as I felt abandoned by all the people who had begged me, pleaded with me and cheered for me before, during and just after recovery. I had beaten the odds, as a staggering prizefighter might do, stopped drinking in the midst of Delirium Tremens, surviving the worst the disease had to throw at me, at least for the now. After the immediate horrors had passed, I had been diagnosed with terminal liver cirrhosis and given only a short time to live.

I refused to think of this that night. The draw of the bottle was a tangible, physical thing. I could taste it, feel the familiar burn. As the snow deepened and wind began to howl across the mountaintops, I gave in to the familiar and ventured outside to retrieve my Elixir of the Gods. I reasoned that I would only have a taste, just one. Something to relax me and celebrate my solitude. A quick jigger to render the memories distant and harmless, where they could bay as lost hounds into the dark, hungry for recognition and companionship.

I journeyed by landmarks burned into my memory. It was a long walk, as I had intended when I stashed the bottle. The driving snow should have obscured signs of my self-immolation, but I am a woodsman. Even as a child, I could find my way through the heavily forested mountains of my home at a dead run, rarely pausing for direction, often at night, when the moon and stars would draw me out of the comfort of my room and into the mysteries of the whispering dark.

The bottle was where I left it. Carefully concealed in a small cast in the trunk of a small hickory, it had gone unnoticed, as I knew it would. Few people walk the mountains these days, content to roar about on fossil fuel fired machines. Even fewer see, or care to look.

Stubbs watched me from a safe distance, sitting as all cats do despite his lack of a tail. He was mysterious, felines can be. I seated myself in the snow, brushing the tiny miracles from a log now buried in the white drifts. I uncorked the bottle.

The next morning found me helplessly vomiting blood into the still snow. Wrapped into a blanket and trapped in the throes of withdrawal, I ate as much snow as I could, my presence violating the still beauty of the morning.

I lost that fight, but I did not give up. I stubbornly clung to consciousness and fought through the sickness and pain, the fevers, the lost passage of hours as my tired brain and tortured body followed my will to live. My wife returned two days later and I drove her SUV through the trackless snow up our tiny dirt drive. She looked at me oddly and carefully inspected the house for anything out of order. Her photographic memory could be at once miraculous and vexing, as she could remember the positioning of every item before her departure. Her searching gaze fell upon the china cabinet, where rocks glasses were kept, shut away and formerly dusty from misuse.

My heart dropped as I spotted what she had only seconds before: One glass was clean. Gleaming cut crystal winked at us as I pretended to have not noticed what she had seen. My eyes were damp with tears as I played with our son, praying that she would not do as she had promised after my last betrayal and turn me away.

She studied my ashen face, jaundiced eyes and gaunt frame. I was painfully lean from no food or water for days as my body ate itself in retribution for the damage I had once again rendered. Our infant boy, carrying my name, tucked his hands inside the space between him and me, where our hearts beat the same blood and for better or worse, our souls shared a bond that could not be broken.

I met her hard gaze beseechingly, pleading silently with her. Not to forgive. The time was past for that. I silently begged her to just let me be. To just allow me this time and space allotted to spend with my son. To allow me some dignity as her husband, to not cast me out, where I would wander alone once more, into the inevitable oblivion of shame and death, casting my shadow on some lonely mountain or losing myself in the pounding surf of a distant land. Our small family was all I had left. My career as a teacher was shot, drowned in a pool of forgotten mistakes. My corner office in an engineering firm was a distant memory and in a remote time, rendered extinct by my alcohol fueled orbit.

Her gaze slowly softened as she watched us. I wept into the blonde curls of my only begotten son, thankful to be allowed this chance, yet again.

She acknowledged without speaking a battle lost, but a war not yet done. Inevitably, we all must fight alone. We must spare our loved ones the knowledge of our own ignorance and fallacies. Her faith in my scarred core, beaten and bloodied by so many years of selfish acts, where I had never known fear or defeat, only despair, carried me through the moment as the sun played across the melting snow.

For me, that was the only way out of the fog. Out of the snow. Out of the weeds. Once, they had blocked the stars. Now, I could see the horizon beyond.
Where love, trust and friendships could be earned once again.

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