The little shed was freezing inside when he woke up.
He looked out the soiled, scratched window; there was three feet of snow outside. He stood up in the corner he had slept in, pulling his tattered blanket about him. His breath was white and icy, a mist forming in front of his blue, dull eyes. He blinked, slowly, and then looked at the floor as he walked to the other side of his shed.
He looked briefly inside his tiny dresser, taking up the leftmost corner. An empty picture frame and an empty flower vase both sat upon it, their occupants long dead. Dirty water he hadn’t bothered to remove sat, stagnant, inside the vase, frozen over in the cold, as though a vessel for the soul that had once resided there. Inside the two drawers, there were clothes that were so torn and so dirty he rarely even bothered with wearing them; even now, he was only clothed in his blanket, a soft, brown knitted beauty that he had possessed since childhood.
He didn’t really feel that it made much of a difference, but he threw a shirt and pants on anyway; he needed to go outside to get food. There wasn’t much of it anywhere, though. The snow had choked almost all of the live plants out, and he didn’t want to catch animals because he couldn’t cook them and he didn’t want to kill them anyway. He wondered if he’d have to go hungry again, without really worrying, just taking it all in stride. Maybe he could try nibbling on some pine needles or tree bark again. Yeah. That sounds good. Just something to hold him over… a little longer…
He threw the blanket back over his shoulders and slowly reached to the door’s handle, not even bothering to flinch at how the cold metal stung his fingertips. He turned the knob and pushed the door out of the way, stepping barefoot into the deep snow, feeling the delicate flakes of ice chill his toes, but he didn’t really care. He simply trudged out through the snow from his worn shed, closing the door behind him, the snow crunching underneath his toes.
The snow was soft and sad. Mourning… Grieving. The weather felt hollow and empty inside, as if something important had gone missing without trail or trace. He empathized with it, embraced its cold emptiness. He internalized it and made it his own… Or perhaps it was the other way around. No, it was the other way around. It was a sad state of affairs, to be sure… But it was the state of affairs nonetheless. There were no ifs, ands, or buts. Just… Vacancy. A once beautiful heart mourning itself, having frozen to death in the cold. That was what this was.
His feet had gone numb; his calves were starting to go, too. The snow might as well have been hiding caltrops, and he still wouldn’t have been able to feel them. He looked up at a young tree not too far away, and deciding that it couldn’t hurt to try, he walked up to it at a brisk pace and attempted chewing at the bark. Bitter, woody, earthy. It tasted awful and felt even worse, but he just kept gnawing, swallowing what he could, feeling the rough material struggle in sliding down his throat.
He yelped, flinching away as a splinter lodged itself in his gums. Tiny, pained whimpers came from his throat as he felt his mouth throb at the pain, clawing at the intrusive splinter frantically in an effort to get it out. To no avail, though; his scratching only seemed to make it worse. He whined once and fell back into the snow in defeat, shoulders slumped. His hands and feet were red and frozen; his body trembled in the cold. His stomach was as empty as ever, hurting with the desire for food. He wouldn’t have to kill again… Would he? No, he wouldn’t even be able to…
He lied down in the snow, closing his eyes, not wanting to bother with going back to his shed to rest. It had been another fruitless venture. He couldn’t keep this up for much longer. When would he be able to let the past go…? Could he? It didn’t feel like he could… It felt as though he would just eventually die here, smothered by the heartache, and then the snow would melt and the sun would shine…
Yeah… The melancholy was definitely… Him.
Something fell softly onto his cheek. He didn’t open his eyes to look at what it was, but it felt warm and friendly, so he didn’t try to get away from it, letting it crawl across his face. He felt the urge to gag as suddenly it flew into his mouth, tiny wings flapping frantically, the splinter stinging his flesh as it was pulled and eventually torn away from his teeth, and then the fluttering in his mouth subsided. He coughed, pushing himself upright and opening his eyes to look at the little creature that had helped him out.
It was a butterfly; a tiny, delicate little creature, bright orange in color with yellow and red marks, no bigger than his own thumb. A bloody wooden splinter hung from where it held it with its legs, which it dropped into the snow.
He crawled towards it a little. “You… Helped me?”
It fluttered close to his forehead, letting him feel the glowing warmth it seemed to emit, before quickly flying off, as if teasing him, beckoning him. He forced himself to his feet and began to follow it as quickly as his frozen feet would let him, not only intrigued and enticed by its warmth, but also having the distinct feeling that the butterfly wanted him to follow it. He hadn’t felt warmth in so long…
He began to notice that it was becoming dark out. He blinked a few times in confusion, slowly coming to a stop, looking around as the trees quickly began to vanish into a dark fog. It was still morning… Why was it getting dark out so soon? No, no, it was too dark to be nightfall… It was becoming an absolute pitch black for as far as he could see. He swiped out at a fading tree in hopes that he was just hallucinating, but his hand only passed through mist and the fading tree seemed to dissolve into black. He looked at his feet; the snow was gone. It wasn’t cold anymore, but it wasn’t warm, either… There was nothing. The forest had just simply vanished into thin air. Where was he??
He looked around again, searching for the butterfly, seeing it as a glowing orange dot becoming farther and farther away. It was the only thing left aside from him, so all he could do was follow it and hope that its light would guide him. It was starting to slow down… Or was he getting faster? Whichever it was, he was getting closer to it, a second, even brighter light becoming visible.
He slowly came to a stop as he realized that it wasn’t just one light… There were dozens of butterflies, fluttering within a jar. The butterfly that had lead him here joined them, a hand coming down to screw the lid back over the opening. A white-cloaked woman, holding the jar in her arms, smiled at him.
“Hey…” She began, holding the jar of glowing butterflies out to him. “You must be cold…”
He took the jar, slowly, hugging it to his chest. It was warm… comforting. He sat down and curled around it, delighting in its warmth.
“You know,” She sat down as well. “It’s supposed to be midsummer.” He looked up at her tiredly. “Isn’t it about time you let this go?”
He sighed, returning his gaze to the jar in his lap, watching the butterflies inside thoughtfully. There was silence for a few seconds while he tried to come up with an answer. Then he said, “I don’t know how.”
There was a little more silence before she spoke up again, reaching forward with one hand. “… At least try to let yourself be happy again.”
“There’ll be drought.”
“It’ll be sunny again. The creatures that once lived in the forest alongside you are dying in the cold, just like you. You’re killing yourself.” She paused. “I don’t think you realize that you don’t have to suffer from these extreme mood swings if you just tried to control them. Please,” She put one hand on his. “At least try. I know I should’ve been there to teach you… But just… Don’t you feel so miserable, living like this?”
He couldn’t bring himself to meet her gaze, blinking slowly. “…How… Can I control them?”
She smiled, patiently explaining. “Recognize them for what they are and try to calm yourself down. Breathe. Be patient. Don’t worry,” She leaned forward to hug him. “I love you. I’m always watching over you. It’ll be okay.”
He returned her hug, squeezing her tightly. “Thank you… I love you too, mother. And… I’m sorry.”
“Shhh…” She began stroking his hair. “It’s alright… What happened wasn’t your fault. Go to sleep now.” She pulled away a little to look at his face. “We have to… Go back.”
He nodded, reluctantly, biting down on his lip. “I-I’ll miss you.”
“I know, sweetheart. I’ll miss you too.” She pulled him into another hug, kissing his forehead. “Go to sleep now…”
A music box began to play a lullaby for him as he slumped into the drift between life and death.
He slowly opened his eyes.
He pushed himself onto his elbows, looking around at the scenery. He was cold, buried in the snow, probably having been lying there for a while. He was still wearing his torn pants, his tattered shirt, the old blanket he’d had since young. He was lying in a part of the forest that he didn’t recognize. He looked up. The sky was overcast, with snow still falling… But was it beginning to clear…?
He looked at the ground again, at his red, numb fingers. He curled up tightly, remembering the feeling of that warm jar of butterflies against his chest… Remembered his mother’s words. He finally let himself cry, his lip trembling as tears fell down his cheeks, sniffling loudly, yet through his tears he still managed to muster a smile.
He was probably lost, and would only be able to return to that shed again if he wandered for days. Maybe he’d been sleep walking. Maybe it was only a dream. No, no, it had all been real. The splinter was gone; he knew that he didn’t pull it out himself, he couldn’t have. His mother had visited him to help him when he needed it, had tasked her butterflies with helping him find her spirit wandering in the forest, looking for him. There must’ve been a reason that she had decided to lay him down to wake up here. This was the beginning of a path where his blessing didn’t have to be a curse, even if he couldn’t see this path yet. She would guide him along it. He was sure of it.
Besides… Could he really call anything real or fake when even the sky empathized with him?
It had stopped snowing.
The sun began to shed its warm light on the ground, a light rain dusting his cheeks.
A rainbow showed through the clouds.
He reached out, as if trying to catch its colors in his hand. “Thanks, mom…” He stood up, brushing the snow from his clothes, wiping the still-flowing tears from his face. “I really needed that.”
He disappeared into the trees, his path laid anew.