The snow was waist high, so deep that tiny chunks of ice were finding their way over the fraying waistband of her wading overalls. She remembered making them, surgically dissecting a faux leather couch meant to withstand the traffic of college students in the dining hall. Long, long ago she was one of them. We all thought we had so much time, she mused. Time was a word no longer in her vocabulary, assuming she had anyone to talk to. Now, the only clock was the change of seasons. And even this was harder to track as winter took up most of the year.
By the tickling chill of the snow hitting her warm skin, she deduced that there was a hole somewhere in the layers of protection she had cobbled together. Threadbare sweatshirts and a too small ski jacket that she found discarded in empty buildings. Protect the major organs, she thought, the lungs and the heart. The jacket sleeve became a makeshift head wrap. She wondered if it was any advantage to protect her brain at this point. In any case, the bite of the icy fragments reminded her that her heart was still pumping, at least for now.
She was grateful that the fresh fallen snow had only partially collapsed the tunnel she used to exit her home in the basement of the law school. Years ago, her husband had been offended by the location of his office. He had been in a very successful private practice for so many years, after all. "There is no complaining allowed in retirement," she had reminded him. He was only adjunct, and the administration had made an attempt to make the windowless office seem cheery by adding a bright yellow vinyl couch.
"The first thing I am going to do is get rid of that horrible couch," he said. Thankfully, he never did. It was now her bed and still cheery yellow underneath a heavy layer of grime. It was perfectly positioned so that she saw only smiling faces when she opened her eyes in the morning. All of those smiling faces - her husband in Hawaii, her children from baby pictures to weddings, and a pearl--framed portrait of a newborn baby with giant dark eyes. That one she studied the most, trying to remember. She had only gotten to see the baby once.
Standing in front of the law school, the path looked clear, more or less. The sun was high in the sky although not generating much heat. It never did. She had forgotten what it felt like to be warm, anyway. "Good morning, Rodin man!" she yelled loudly per her morning routine. There was no one there to answer or to judge that she was conversing with a statue. Covered in snow, only his head, shrugged shoulders and the palm of his raised outstretched hand could be seen. She remembered the law school orientation when the dean had explained that the Rodin sculpture in the courtyard was meant to represent a human's ability to challenge. "This," the dean had said, "is what I want from you as a law student, to be always asking why."
She rubbed her wrapped hand on the sculpture's head, the metal was painfully cold even through her layers. "I don't know why either, buddy. God knows, I wish I knew why," she whispered in the same voice that she used to calm her son when he had a two-year-old tantrum because there were uneven amounts of peanut butter and jelly in his sandwich. Oh, to have the luxury of tantrums over nothing again. She felt the warmth of a tear on her cheek, then the biting chill at her waistband. Water, she thought. She had to get to the river.
It was cold enough that the walls of the path were frozen into place. Out of habit, she searched the sky for signs of anything new, hazy gray clouds obscuring the half-heated sun. No voices, no sounds, except for the crunching of snow under her boots. She reached the riverbank but there was more work to be done digging out the water buckets and auger housed in a large plastic shed that she had dragged to the river's edge over the summer.
Navigating the temperament of the Iowa River was always a delicate dance. In spring, it flooded and, in winter, the river flirted with freezing solid. She cursed under her breath as she shoveled for what seemed like eternity only to have to auger for what seemed like longer. The sun was fading when the water finally bubbled through the layered sheaths of ice. Leaning with her bucket just so, the water began to dribble in and then, with one more tum of the auger, steadily streamed in.
She almost missed the flash of red in her peripheral vision, a brilliant red streak buried in the flowing river water. She had been so focused on keeping her hands dry. Now, staring into the bucket the object floated to the top and, instinctively, she scooped it out. Freezing hands be damned. It was a perfectly formed red feather. Although the downy part was wet and weighted by quickly forming ice, it was completely intact. She lifted it to the fading sun. It had been so long since she had seen color, bright color. At the end of the translucent quill there was a fresh marrow tip. This feather seemed vibrant like it had come from something recently, something that was alive. Like her, alive.
She cradled the feather in her hand, gently guiding it through the layers to rest at her breastbone. In the fragile sunlight, she ran home. With every increasing heartbeat, her body warmed with the feather pressed to her heart. With every pulse, breathing new life.