~chapter 4~
Footprints in the Snow
A Mysterious Woman Enters the Tale

My childhood was wrought with pain. My mother, a bitter woman who drank to excess, often beat me with the family bible. My only escape was to lock myself in the bathroom and read a poem that hung on the wall opposite the toilet. Eventually, with great effort, I memorized this poem verbatim:

Once I dreamed I was sunbathing with the Lord.
During this dream,
The story of my life flashed across the sky.
At the same time, I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,
Sometimes there was one.
I noticed that during the worst parts of my life
I could see only one set of footprints,
So I told God,
“You promised you'd always be my friend
And walk with me.
But look! During my life's gloomiest moments
There's only one set of footprints!
Explain that, oh mighty Lord!”
God wiped a tear from his eye and said,
“That was when I was carrying you, my
Dear, dear, wonderful son.”

by Anonymous

I've never been much for poetry, but this one struck me as very profound. After many hours in the bathroom, I began to understand what Anonymous was trying to say: Were it not for the influence of God, our lives would be happy all the time. There is also a deeper level: God feels guilty about this and cries about it sometimes but even as the Almightiest Being in the Universe, He can do nothing about it. In a way, the poem speaks to the fate of us all. For our actions—even the best intended actions—lead inevitably to misery. If you don't believe me, read on…

After following father's tracks into the woods for several hours I became tired, exhausted, spent. My feet dragged through the snow. My tongue dangled out the corner of my mouth. My hands danced before my eyes. Perhaps it was the thrumming hoot of the owls; the shafts of moonlight that pierced the naked branches of the aspens; the numbing cold of the winter night; whatever it was, I required sleep. But to sleep in this cold was to die. So, I lit a fire. Father was somewhere ahead of me, making good time for a man who had been in a coma for three weeks. Without my aid, he may die. But without rest I would definitely die. You may curse me for making this choice. As you read further, you may curse me more, for it was the wrong choice. But I have read that hypothermia can cause people to act irrationally. They remove their clothes and are found weeks later hugging a tree, frozen so thoroughly that the coroner must wait for Spring to chip away the ivory body.

If you've read the previous chapters of this tale, you know that I am a man of reason and that only extreme circumstances (e.g. hypothermia, accidental consumption of a sleeping pill, leg caught in a bear trap) would cause me to abandon my search for father. And so, being frightfully cold, I did. I needed a fire. I gathered a pile of dead branches and stuck a match. But my fingers shook and the wood refused to light. I had nothing to use as kindling. Nothing, that is, except the manuscript to father's unpublished autobiography. Again, I explain my actions by pointing out that I was suffering hypothermia. I think it is rational to want to live and I, as I have said, am a rational man.

I crumpled a few pages, lit my last remaining match, and held my breath. The edges glowed, the papers lit. I fed a twig into the flames and it caught fire. A larger branch ignited and soon I was curled up before a gentle sun. I would survive the night. And I had only burned the first chapter.

Unfortunately, the next morning, a fresh snow had fallen and I knew not where I was. Father's tracks were gone.

I ran around in an expanding spiral, reasoning that my course would eventually intersect Father's trail. Minutes later, and very dizzy, I came across signs of a camp site. He had spent the night not forty feet from me.

I found the fresh trail and ran as fast as the snow permitted. Eventually, I came to a clearing and I saw a woman, bearing a great weight upon her back. The trail led directly to her. She heard my wheezes and glanced back at me with pale blue eyes. Eyes that belonged to a husky not to a woman. Eyes that spoke of anger and passion. She wore ski pants. Her hair was matted with ice. She snarled at me. The object she was carrying groaned. Father! The woman turned and sprinted away into the woods with father. Oh, father, you are not awake! You are a captive!

“Stop!” I shouted.

But she ran. How she made such good time with my father on her shoulder, I do not know. I only know that this was a desperate creature. And desperation breeds speed. What she didn't realize was that I, too, was desperate and so therefore speedy. But, even with my father on her shoulder, she must have been more desperate than I, for she outpaced me. I followed her through the trees and over logs. Birds startled at our approach. I nearly swiped the back of her jacket at one point, but she grunted and quickened her stride. Father, bouncing on her shoulder, snored peacefully the entire time.

And then the forest ended. We came to an incline. Using father as a toboggan, the woman rode down the slope, which ended at the shoulder of I-70. I followed, rolling. She glided over the ice. I became thick with snow and tumbled to the bottom, coming to a rest next to the woman, who was wiping snow out of Father's hair. Unfortunately, I had snowballed and was now trapped, helpless, in the middle of a six foot sphere.

The woman stuck out her thumb, unbuttoned the top half of her blouse. A car approached and stopped. A door opened. The woman tossed father into the back seat and climbed in after him.

The last echoes of the car had disappeared down the canyon by the time I had freed myself from my snowy prison. Now I'm standing on the side of the road. The sun is setting. My god, who is this woman?

I have been deceived. What would Anonymous have to say about this? Father, in what must surely be the worst moment of his life, has not walked a step.

But it is not God who carries him.

--Elk Undercarriage, June 2005

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