Quiet Beneath the Spruce Tree
By Adam Welch
“No one will ever see them now” he thought. Looking down at the six black plastic film holders sticking up from the green russack at his feet. Each holder held two sheets of film that he’d loaded in his rented room back in Asheville the night before. He had bundled up his clean shirt and pushed it against the crack under the door and jammed his pants at the top with the legs hanging down to block out the light from the lamps in the hallway. He wondered now if whoever found him, if he would ever be found, would know what the holders were and what they held within them. “Such a waste” he muttered as he thought about what could happen to the negatives, his last negatives. His mind wandered to even more unlikely thoughts about how the film might react to being frozen and if it could be thawed out without ruining the emulsion. “Maybe they could be worth something after the story gets out”. He gave a slow smile as he realized how different his thoughts were from what he imagined they would be when his time came.
The city was calm and nearly buried in snow. No one else was on Patton street when he set out in the dark that morning except him and his Linhoff. He turned left through Pack Square and then onto Market street heading north out of town and into the mountains. There was no sound as the falling snow seemed to drink it all up. All he could hear was the hollow thud of his bag against his back as the contents shifted with his steps. His wool boggin somehow made his hair hurt but he knew it was far too cold to take it off. Everything was packed in that green russack: the six film holders in the worn gray cardboard box, the darkcloth, the Zeiss Jena 135mm, and the Schneider 90mm with the cracked lens board. The filters were kept in their felt pouches inside a frayed manila envelope. His prized Linhof Technika, a faded chamois cloth, and the cable release were all kept wrapped in a cut down wool blanket. The old surveyors tripod he slung over his shoulder in it’s black canvas bag. On the other shoulder he carried a smaller red burlap chow sack with two cans of salted pork, an opener, and a pack of soda crackers. His canteen rested inside the sack on top along with his pipe and tobacco and the pewter match box his sister had given him. He was only going to be gone for the day there wasn’t much need for anything else. No, all that was gone except for the film holders that were now his only company. How they had managed to stay in the bag when he fell through he didn’t know.
“Why did I not cross further down?” he thought. If he had he’d already be back in Johnson City, having probably just developing the last sheet of 4x5 and deciding which ones to print instead of being here under this tree. He sat with his legs out straight beneath the low hanging Spruce branches where he’d managed to drag himself to from the water. Or as straight as the left one would allow as it appeared to have an extra knee now set just below his real knee. He had heard the leg pop during the last roll just before he hit the ice at the bottom of the gorge. His boot had found the ice slicked rocks beneath the snow as he walked along the rim. He remembered the breath being knock from him as he fell. Then he could feel the water on his face and the slow cold as it seeped through his coat and into his shirt. The river was frozen along the bank and held him there for a moment after he landed. The ice gave nothing to hold to and it broke and cracked as he slapped at with his hands to get to shore. He could feel his face burning as the air met his wet skin and the leg, my God the leg. The pain was sharp up to his hip and into the small of his back. He hadn’t seen it yet, the way it just doubled back beneath him as he finally pulled his way onto the snow and righted himself. Standing was too much for him. The leg drug in the snow with the foot twisted round behind it as he tried to push himself up off the ground. He felt himself growing faint and fell back down in a heap. He crawled on his elbows with his fists clenched to his chest towards a small grove of Spruce growing just up the bank.. His hands were already stiff and it was hard for him to move his fingers. After seeing the leg the truth hit him and this truth was more true and certain than anything he’d known before then. It was the truth of knowing all the things he would never do again and more over, the things he would never get to do.
There had been a wedding somewhere in town the night before and the majority of the attendants apparently weren’t ready for the end of the revelries, so they spilled over into the tavern at the corner of Craven and Haywood. It was around 9 o’clock when they burst through the door and up to the bar where he sat nursing his beer. They were loud and still had rice in their hair and on their clothes. One of them had yelled “There’s more to drink still, Marjorie!” to a to a woman who was staggering her way to the bathroom at the rear of the room. He didn’t mind the noise so much as he did the pointlessness of their conversations. Each one of them seemed to have something else to go home to, something else to do that they didn’t truly want to do but would do anyway. “I’m just here to make my photographs” he thought to himself and downed the rest of his beer which was now warm from lingering too long in a held glass.
“You’re not leaving are you?” a voice came from behind him. He turned around on the stool and saw three women, or maybe girls, sitting at a small white topped table. One of the them sat in a chair that was much smaller than the other two and he thought immediately how funny this made her look. “I’ve got an early day tomorrow” he said, not knowing which one of the girls had spoken to him. The one in the small chair laughed and then leaned over the table to whisper something to the others. “Then I suppose you better get going” she said with her eyebrows raised. It was right then when he realized she was beautiful. Not beautiful in the way had saw girls in magazines, but more like the feeling he had during sunrises when there was no possible reason to ever look away. She was obviously older than the other two and wore a tan blouse with tiny blue flowers all over it or something like that. Her brown hair was pulled back in a kind of bun with a few strands falling down into her face which she immediately brushed back from her eyes as she looked at him. He noticed a lightness in his stomach and felt his face flush with the excited embarrassment of not knowing what to say to the woman. With an uneasy chuckle he got up from his stool and fumbled into his front pants pocket for a five dollar bill and laid it on the counter. Then he walked his most distinguished walk past their table towards the jukebox which was next to the toilet in back. When he came out he noticed a freshly poured beer sitting on the bar where he had just been. He looked over at the table where the short chair girl sat. She smiled first at him and then cut her eyes quickly over to the beer waiting at the bar, and then back again to meet his. “Like I said, an early day” he told her as he quickly made his way past them and towards the front door. As he pushed the door open he looked back at the short chair girl. She still sat there with her legs crossed smiling at him as the other two girls laughed.
As he walked out into the snow and up Haywood towards his room on Patton street he wondered why he hadn’t stayed. “I could have at least smiled back” he thought. He had never had a woman buy him anything before let alone a beer. “I could have came up with a thank you if nothing else. What would have been the harm in staying an extra day?” he thought as walked, kicking the snow into little powdery clouds as he went. He didn’t even know if the woman was with that wedding, with all those people who talked so loudly but said nothing worth listening to. “She couldn’t have been...not a woman like that” he thought. A small part of him began to hope that she might live there in town and maybe she would be there at that same tavern at the same table sitting in that same short-legged chair when he got back from the gorge the next evening. He thought about how he would go about thanking her for the beer and buy her one in return. He thought about how he would apologize for just walking out without saying anything. He thought of all the things he would tell her about why he was there and what he was photographing. “Maybe I could come back here and take her out with me next time...if she wanted. I could show her the Linhoff and how it’s all done.” Yes, he would do so much different the next time and who knows what could happen. All the way back to his room he thought about her.
His eyes opened and he realized that he had been asleep although he wasn’t certain for how long. As he looked around about himself in the moonlight he could see the blue snow with the matte glitter sparkling on top of it. The green russack still lay down by his feet, covered now in fresh powder. “It must have snowed” he said to himself even though a part of him knew he hadn’t really said it aloud, only thought it. There was no pain. Just a numbness that made him wonder if this was what death felt like. If it was, then it wasn’t the horror he’d always thought it would be.
The cold had robbed him of first his strength, then his pain, and finally his fear. He had stopped trying to eat the snow despite his thirst. It had begun to taste like metal in his mouth as it melted to liquid and seeped down cold against the back of his throat. “Were there no other chairs?” he thought. Then he rested his head back on the tree trunk, closed his eyes, and was still.