"Your fingers aren't cold because of the cold — it's because you have poor circulation," she said as she moved to the sink beneath the tiny window. She stepped into a small square of early-morning light, the light that aches gray while it flatters. It would seem comforting, a sign of spring finally coming to ease the blow of a New England winter, were it not for the frost creeping over the glass, were it not for the brittle feeling of the warmth that may or may not see the day through. Earlier I had abandoned my blanket on the couch and followed her into the kitchen. She seemed not to notice or care, with the same vague apathy she had when I told her I wanted to see her, how she was doing. "I'm doing just fine," she had said. "Come if you want to see me, but don't come simply to check in. That's unnecessary."
I had insisted, No, no, I miss you, that's all, and left out, "I'm scared for you," and "Where did you go?" and "I want to know where you live now, because what if something happens?" Her house is in an open field, about a half a mile away from an unmarked road, and it is small and derelict but it is hers. It is peaceful, and so silent it rings. She looks into the sink pensively. I am exhausted and am still morning-blind, my back against the wall and my arms wrapped around my knees on the floor. The cat is curled in a black, furry ball next to the oven, and he looks so comfortable that out of jealousy I pull him on to my lap and move to where he was sitting.
"Your lips are blue," she says through the quiet. I open an eye. She smirks and turns away. "Just do something to make your heart beat fast, to get the blood flowing." I scoff at the idea of movement.
"Can't you just turn on the oven or something?" I ask.
"Look on the bright side: have you ever seen a mountain roach? It's too cold. They'd freeze here."
That is the most optimistic thing I've heard since coming.
To get my heart to beat faster, I pull myself, one vertebra at a time, flat against the wall and rest my head against it. I force myself to blink away my sleepy-cold headache to concentrate on sitting up straight. Poor circulation causes intolerance to cold; poor posture causes headaches.
She stays on the other side of the tiny kitchen, still beneath the tiny window, her tiny body still bent over some important task in the sink. The cat begins to purr loudly, despite himself, like a little motor. She gives an unenthused half-glance over one shoulder.
Last year she ditched Brooklyn to live in the middle of the woods, and no one heard from her and no one could find her for months. The mere fact that she survived, let alone did it well, is remarkable, her frame barely more than a child's. She always leans into shadows so that she is never seen easily, and she speaks only on her own terms, in long bursts or otherwise nothing, and never more than a few words or a nod if she's not in the mood. She is working hard on her project. Something is ripping.
In the morning, as in the evening, light casts an optimistic eye in gray or in gold. Her head is down and her lower lip is between her teeth; she could be a painting. She carefully, calmly, pulls her arm back and lets out a satisfied breath. And there's that same strange ripping noise, almost like paper with more give. "There! Come look, unless you're squeamish."
I am, very, but I don't answer and she doesn't press further. She gestures impatiently. I push the cat off of my lap and walk to her side. Her hands are bent so her wrists point toward me and her fingers away, because they are wet, but I can't see with what.
She steps back and nods toward the work in the sink. A quick pink flash and I snatch my eyes away as quickly as I look down. Some small animal whose skull was crushed on one side, its pelt in a pile next to it. A closer look better reveals its identity: A fluffy tail aimed at the pile of fur. A squirrel.
"Oh." I draw in a sharp breath.
She begins. "I found it by the side of the road, but I've had it in my freezer for the past month. I only got a chance to fix it now. I don't know what I'm going to do with it though."
From where I'm standing and where she is standing the squirrel stays in my peripheral vision if I'm to look at her. She tells me the biography of its death: it must have died only seconds before she took it, how it tried to run back to the side of the road before the car made impact only with, surprisingly, its diminutive little head, how she cleaned its brain and blood from its fur so it wouldn't stick once she put it in the freezer. She, of course, wore gloves the whole time. You never know what kind of parasites these little guys have.
The room has taken on a thick smell of iron as the squirrel completely defrosts, and there is a sticky red wetness on the floor, on her fingers and in her hair, and in the cat's dish. My heart is beating so fast my ribs vibrate. She is irritated by my silence and turns back to the sink. "Amazing how little and fragile it is," she says.
I look at her, her back toward me once again. I step closer to her and spread my fingers out wide. If I pressed my hand against her, it would almost cover her shoulders. If I pressed hard, she would fold in half. She doesn't look; she doesn't seem to notice or care. She says, "What's the matter? Got tired of the cat in your lap?"
My voice cracks. "I don't need him there. I'm warm now."
Her monologue is over and so is the morning's golden hour, for now, until evening before the sun sets, creating bookends to the day. The light is brighter now, and nothing will cast a flattering eye on the room: the paring knife in her tiny hand, the tail standing upright in a pile of fur separate from its owner.
L.A. Mitchell is a writer, health educator and doula based in Brooklyn.