"Footsteps of Yesterday" by Jess Skoog — Our September 2018 Silver Medal Winner

by - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Jess Skoog is our second place winner from the contest posted in our September, 2018 issue!

What the judges had to say:
"Beautifully told."
"A firm connection to setting gave this story a universal reach that's easy to identify with. I loved how the setting permeated the tale."
"Feels like a true tribute."

Meet Jess:

Jess Skoog lives in Waterloo Region with her husband and daughter. She has been published in the Canadian Author Association’s anthology, Blood is Thicker. Her love of writing stems from her parents exposing her to a wide variety of authors. Top influencers throughout the years, ranged from Carolyn Keene to Camus. She is a firm believer that as the sun rises, solid, thoughtful words abound. As a result, she is a regular member of the #5amwritersclub. You can find Jess on twitter at @jessskoog.

When Jess sent her contest entry she said the "image instantly directed me towards Robert Frost’s poem, Dust of Snow. During high school, I was well-versed in Mr. Frost’s works, but it was a lovely surprise to realize that I remembered bits and pieces of his work. I see his hemlocks and the promise of good things to come in the image... As you read “Footsteps of Yesterday” I hope you experience the same wonder I have when I read it—what past sins are the hemlocks protecting the uncle from repeating?"

The photo prompt:

the unedited story:

Footsteps of Yesterday

by Jess Skoog

The day he died, my uncle walked “into the light.” He would have laughed at the symbolism. His heavily evergreen-treed laneway provides a tunnel-like path to the road, cool every day of the year, but downright freezing on this late February morning. Ahead of me a beam of sunlight cascades through, like the arch of a dome, beckoning me to its edge. Yesterday morning was much like today. My uncle set out down his snow-covered, winding laneway and reached the road where his rural mailbox sits. The latch was left open, and yesterday’s newspaper was found next to him where he fell. I can guarantee he didn’t think it would be his final walk or the last time he felt the sun warming his face while the snow recorded each of his footsteps. He joked he’d live forever, out here in the middle of nowhere. I tread carefully to preserve the documentation of his tracks which never return home.

Last night I stayed in his cabin. A half-completed crossword still rests by his recliner. Would he want me to finish it? Not likely. He’d expect me to save it for posterity, much like everything else he kept. The cabin is filled to the brim with receipts, newspapers and books.

This morning I grabbed his jacket, which is at least three sizes too big for me. It reeks of coffee and possibly gin—I can’t be sure—but it most certainly smells like him. The roominess traps my body heat, and I’m almost sweating as I walk on this brisk winter day. I wanted to retrace his last hours, so I began with making coffee in his percolator. Thank goodness the auto shut off worked yesterday or I might have had a burnt-out cabin to contend with instead of only dealing with his death.

A neighbour had found him. The nurses at the hospital believe it was only a few hours after he’d reached his mailbox. He died before the hospital contacted me. I feel lucky he made it out to the road as there’s no telling when anyone would have come looking for him. Not a soul in this town would have noticed he was missing, maybe even for weeks. He was a man who had nowhere to be and no obligations. He said, “Living free of responsibilities,” was the reward for turning his life around. Sure, all my siblings invited him at Christmas, Easter and especially at Thanksgiving; the fall colours here are beautiful. It would have been a gorgeous drive to collect him, but he always declined our invitations. Frequent phone calls were our norm, but no one would describe us as “his doting family.” Living here alone, off a road infrequently travelled was what he wanted.

As I walk alongside his immortalized footsteps, I sense him. Flurries are forecasted later today, and then even this last tangible evidence of my uncle’s existence will be gone. Only a cabin full of paper will exist, and of course my memories. Today’s newspaper is wrapped in a plastic bag. The news of his death arriving safely in his own mailbox. He’d be pleased.

A brisk gust of wind throws icy pellets off the hemlocks lined row after row with the road, and a cold slap of snow sticks to my cheek. The burning makes me want to hide deeper inside his jacket.

Tracking his steps, I try to follow his gait, lunging to match his impressions while the snow crunches and snaps under my boots. It gets darker as snow clouds move in and streak the sky. Looking up at the hemlock trees, I’m reminded of one of his favourite poems by Robert Frost, “Dust of Snow.”

      The way a crow
      Shook down on me
      The dust of snow
      From a hemlock tree

       Has given my heart
      A change of mood
      And saved some part
      Of a day I had rued.

The verse is indelible in my mind because of how often I heard him recite it while I was growing up. It was almost as if Mr. Frost wrote the poem from my uncle’s porch, his dark cabin surrounded by the trees synonymous with poison. To look at my uncle you would think he was the unhappiest curmudgeon around, with his gruff unkempt beard, stocky build and permanent scowl, many would turn away from him or perhaps make fun of him. But to me, he was a diamond in the rough.

Only a strong person could live here in this isolation. I don’t know many who could. There’s an unnatural stillness as I return to his cabin. When I was young and full of questions, I asked him why anyone would want to be out here in the middle of nowhere. He joked it was a blessing to be surrounded by trees which many believe had the capacity to kill. “It kept the bad out,” he said and that, “he had a fortress to keep him strong.” Bad can transform to good: that was his interpretation of Mr. Frost’s poem.

Instantly, I want to feel that connectedness to something bigger, something symbolic. As I stop walking and pivot towards the forest that lines the north side of his laneway I accidentally smudge one of my uncle’s footsteps. A hawk, not the bird of death from the poem, flaps its wings overhead as it lands on the branch above me. Snow showers me with a blessing of hope. My uncle is with me, and I recite the poem out loud once again.

[Read the first and third place stories]

Learn how you can participate in one of our Write-Prompt Flash Fiction Contests HERE

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