Uncoiling winds sing a wintry song as I approach the edge of the woods. Halfway through my early morning run I stop to enjoy snow’s untrampled beauty.
Hands on hips, I breathe heavily. Bursts of steam leak from my mouth.
Within a minute, a coating of white is painted across my shoulders and upper arms. Two, then three, snowflakes collect on the tip of a reddened nose.
Before me, a crisp white blanket comforts the sleeping earth.
Overhead, a diffused sun sprinkles light here and there.
The boldest of the snowflakes lance my face and the back of exposed hands as they rush toward the earth.
Behind me, the nor’easter gathers strength.
And with the governor urging motorists to stay off the roads, and savvy animals hunkered down in preparation for a mighty storm, I find myself alone at the edge of the woods.
Bending branches sigh.
The sounds of daybreak fill the air with an ancient call.
Not to be left behind, my running companion joins me at the entrance to the forest.
She sidles up next to me. Tenderly, she brushes snowflakes from my arm. Standing at my side her breaths join mine in a tangle of steam.
She’s stealthy, unseen, and knows just what to say.
“The woods,” she purrs. “Remember the woods?” She speaks in a tone meant just for me.
Crossing arms over a strong chest the past watches me smile. And, alone with the past, I nod at thoughts of days gone by.
“The woods,” I smirk.
Biting her lip, the past works to contain a smile.
Here, at the edge of a thick wood in a sleepy Massachusetts town, I recall running naked for hours through the Boulevard Woods in chase of hallucinations. Toes stubbed and shins bruised, the 17 year old version of me finally fell to sleep upon a bed of moss. Moonlight blanketed my bare body. And I remember stripping to dance with my friend, the moon, before raging bonfires in Harriman State Park in the late 70s and early 80s, the fire flushing my face and warming a heaving chest.
Shivering in this morning’s cold, I shake my head at memories of the teenage me.
Monitoring my mood, the past cocks an athletic hip. She juts her chin toward virgin snow. Rubbing the small of my back she whispers in my ear, “We’re all alone, you know.” Her minty words seek to soothe, to comfort.
She’s spent years laboring to earn my trust, my confidence. And though once an unwelcome tag-along I now count her as my treasured confidant.
She’s friend not foe.
She’s devoted and honest; brutally honest.
She steps on tip toes to kiss my cheek, the effort gently drawing a memory to the surface. “Just you and me.”
And with the past clutching at my side, the words of a dear departed friend, Jeffrey, surface to stroke my face. I repeat Jeffrey’s mantra. I say it so quietly only the past can hear, “Only when we are naked and vulnerable are we alive.”
From the rear a violent wind pushes against me. Agitated at the interruption the past pushes back.
“Naked … and alive…” I wonder aloud.
“Naked and alive,” she echoes.
“Do it,” suggests the past. Her warm breath fills my ear. She bumps my hip with hers. “Do it,” she repeats.
Listening to the murmurs of the forest I look to and fro. Snowfall is quickening the pace. Still, there’s no one here. Not an animal, not a human. Not a soul to be seen.
And the past.
She strokes the back of my neck.
“To be alive,” she coos, “is to be vulnerable.”
Taking a deep breath I stamp my foot against a hardened earth. Responding to the past with a curt nod I brush off lingering snowflakes. And moving away from the here and now I step toward a fallen tree. Methodically, I clear a square space from the snow before the thick log. The warm earth peeks up as her blanket is pulled back. She blinks and rubs a wary eye before rolling to her wide.
The past grows giddy. “Really?” she squeals. Like a schoolgirl she hops from one foot to the other. She tugs at her skin tight body suit. “Oh my god, we’re really gonna do this?”
Quickly, I remove my hat and running jacket and place them on the fallen tree. I strip off three shirts, folding each before stacking them on top of my jacket.
Shirtless, I begin to tremble under the weight of accumulating snowflakes.
I stammer, “Holy shit, it’s cold!”
The past rolls her eyes. She cackles, “It’s 19 degrees! Of course it’s cold!”
And shivering, I pull off sneakers, socks, running pants and underwear. The frozen earth stabs the soles of tender feet. An unforgiving winter wraps me in her arms as I sit upon the tree’s barren trunk to return sneakers to icy feet. My ass tingles as curious snowflakes take leave from the fallen tree, opting for a moment upon exposed skin. I return my well-worn Sox cap to the top of a salt and pepper crown.
With just my sneakers and Sox hat I stand, unclothed, under falling snow.
Eager to join me, the past steps forward and strips away a single layer of cover. Tossing her garb to the side she stands naked before me. She stands tall, unembarrassed at her nakedness. And watching me watch her, she runs delicate hands over smooth skin. Snowflakes cling as long fingers linger and idle upon a collection of scars.
Fully exposed, she smiles softly.
She takes my hand and places it upon her breast. She’s warm, and soft, and honest.
“I am yours,” she whispers. “And I love you with all my being.”
Wiping my eyes I acknowledge the past’s confession before turning away.
Here, at the edge of the wood, decades after stripping naked to give chase to hallucinations in New Jersey, and decades after dancing nude under moonlight, I gather my clothing into a ball, tuck it under my right arm and begin to run.
My chest burns as stinging snowflakes launch themselves at exposed skin.
Salvo after salvo strike at me.
In response an army of goosebumps marches across my arms, my chest, may back.
Bitter cold gives chase as I rush naked through the woods.
Behind me the past keeps pace with graceful strides.
“Oh my god!” she howls. She throws her arms wide. “This is glorious!”
The storm joins the chase, striking savagely at bristling skin. A trail of snow kicks up from leaping feet. Momentarily uncovered, the earth shivers.
Milky bursts of breath mark the path before me.
Matching me stride for stride the past reaches over to take my hand. And looking to my left I see she is crying. With her free hand she touches her chest. “I am yours; all yours,” she pants.
From deep inside a raging bonfire warms my chest.
From above, winds howl in delight. Trees heave and bow as the past and I rush under outstretched limbs.
Falling snow clings to shoulders, pumping legs and my exposed ass. Soon my entire body shimmers as snow redoubles her efforts, embracing me as she might embrace the earth. Hurtling through the woods I revel in snow’s cold touch. And hurtling through the woods I revel in the past’s sense of ownership.
A deer crosses my path, stopping to dip her head. Startled at my approach she darts over virgin snow.
Time drifts and floats as past and present pour through the forest.
Coated in snow, I continue to run. I cover a half mile, perhaps a bit more, before hearing the echoes of a barking dog. My heart heaves at the thought of discovery. And realizing what might become of me should I be found naked in the woods by an early morning dog walker I rush behind a collection of pines to cover my nakedness.
But before dressing I stand quietly under falling snow. Holding arms wide I assume the shape of a cross. Closing my eyes I face a milky sun, a collection of snowflakes gracing my cheeks. I convulse as snow collects across my shoulders. With eyes closed I breathe, soaking in the beauty of the wintry wood, soaking in the beauty of vulnerability.
Stepping forward, the past embraces me.
She rests her warm cheek upon my chest.
And opening eyes wide I spy a plume of dragon’s breath as it uncoils before me. Giving me the space I need the past takes a single step back.
Behind the pines I fight off shivers to dress. Fully clothed, I adjust sneakers and tug the Sox cap over my head before turning to go.
It’s time to return from whence I came.
The past, however, remains unclothed. Reveling in the moment she pauses at the edge of the woods.
She can go no further.
She watches as I grow smaller.
And though I’ve left her behind, she luxuriates under the glow of our collective journey.
Alone with her thoughts, she looks down to observe the smoothness of her body. She observes the history of her scars. Within a minute she’s covered in a cloak of white, her scars fading with time.
She closes eyes and breathes, soaking in the beauty of the wintry wood, soaking in the beauty of vulnerability.
Then, without a sound, she takes her leave.
It’s time to return from whence she came.