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Missed Connections

By: Sheldon Birnie



This odd couple shuffled along the road through the fresh snow as I shoveled the walk, gloaming gathering from the east. As they passed, I nodded my greeting, bent as I was to the task at hand. They smiled, teeth as crooked as any fence post sunk into this silty loam ever was, ducking their heads in return. Then they made their way up the street and out onto the levee road that kept the creek from wiping this whole side of town out when it spills its banks in the spring, headed for the big lake with the thaw.

The pair could have been nearly any age, I couldn’t tell. The man walked slightly hunched over and limping to the left, while the woman clutched something wrapped tight to her chest. Otherwise they could have been just about anybody.

I bent back to my shoveling, grumbling about the snowfall, early as it was. When I came back after finishing up another pass, the pair were up on the levee, silhouetted against the pink and blue bleeding through the branches of the bare, diseased elms above. The woman pulled big dripping chunks of something out of her bundle—just what, I couldn’t make out in the fading light—and passed them over to the man. Grinning, he’d wind up and chuck them off down the bank into the bush and brambles. They’d share a little knowing smile, then do it again.

What the shit? I muttered, slipping away to tuck my shovel away in the shed back of the house and go have a closer look at what this pair were up to.

But when I got back out front they were gone. Still, I walked up to the levee. I couldn’t make out their tracks, but I followed the tire ruts the pair had no doubt followed themselves not five minutes prior. I stopped where I figured I’d last seen them, and gave a look up and down the road each way. Then I did it again, quick.

There was no sign of them anywhere. No way they could have hightailed it out of sight in either direction, not given the brief time that had passed. They were just gone.

Though I saw no footprints leading off the road and down the bank, I took a step in that direction. Where else could they be? Yet when I looked down the bank, I saw neither sign of the pair nor the mysterious scraps they’d seemingly spread about the area. Nothing. With shadows falling from the tree tops, creeping in from all sides, I turned back and headed home.

In the ensuing days, each shorter, darker, colder than the last, I all but forgot about the strange pair. There were more pressing concerns. Such is life. But weeks later, as the afternoon bled out blue, I saw them shuffle down the road past my front window once again, the man with his limp and the woman clutching something to her chest.

Without hesitation, I made for my mud room to pull on boots and a coat. As I closed the door behind me, the twilit pair had turned up the access road and gained the embankment.

Hey, I called out, breath pluming before me as I hustled down the lane after them. You there, wait.

The pair paid me no mind. Rather, as before, the woman pulled apart her package, handing chunks of whatever it was to the man, who’d throw them forthwith down toward the frozen creek bed below. As I approached the access road, it appeared they had completed their task, for the woman tossed her towel over her shoulder, and the two clasped mittened hands. When I made to call out again, I must have caught a patch of ice beneath the snow. I slipped and fell. Hard. I cried out in pain and frustration, eyes blurred.

By the time I’d regained my feet, the two were gone. I scrambled up the bank, hoping to catch them scurrying down into the snowy underbrush on the other side. But no. The snow below was unbroken, not even by the tracks of squirrels, rabbits and birds. There was no sign of them. They were gone. Just gone. Again.

Whereas any thought of the pair slipped likewise from my mind with ease the first time, this second visit left me deeply unsettled. There was no rhyme or reason to it, nor could I fathom any explanation. None whatsoever. Beyond the manner in which the series of events played out, the only other commonalities that I could deduce was their appearance at dusk following a relatively new fall of snow.

With the mania of a new religious convert, I awaited the next fall of snow, zealously scouring the daily weather reports among these very pages. But the snows seemed to pass us by, or deliver but a sprinkle if the clouds so deigned to favour us at all. Until the other night, some four weeks since the pair’s last visitation.

When the sky cleared mid-afternoon, I put my tasks aside, and made my way down into the woods by the creek, taking a circuitous route so as not to make my presence immediately obvious. I crossed the frozen creek, then walked well past the spot I had marked in my mind as being the approximate location from which the pair would pitch the contents of their package before creeping up to the bank. Crouching, I ducked behind a tangle of willows which I hoped would provide adequate cover. Then, the waiting began.

As the sun dipped behind the western horizon, golden light climbing the bare limbs of the trees growing atop the riverbank to vanish into the cold winter air, a nearby jay fell silent. A full moon a glowing sepulchre against the darkening bruise in the east. My heart quickened. I held my breath as the world was wrapped in shadow. Only then did the two figures appear on the bank above.

With winter near upon us now, day fades quickly to black with little ceremony. Despite the gloom, still I could make out their features well enough. The pair were self-same as had passed me by before; the limping man grinning, the woman clutching a parcel to her chest. Both their eyes were shadowed, but I could feel them looking upon me. The woman smiled, though, and began to unwrap the scarf from her package.

Frozen as the world around me, I could say nor do anything but crouch, as though I were nothing more than a common river rat, hungry and cold. As though I were unworthy of what they were about to bestow. I trembled. But if any were worthy, would it not be me?

Slowly, deliberately, the woman passed her charge to the man; grinning, he tossed it down through the bushes to me. Greedily, I caught each offering, gathering the warm, wet pieces to my chest. I held them close. Safe. When they had finished, they stood a moment, staring down, ice crackling to a rising roar around me as I was down into the frigid waters below. Quiet and quick as they’d come, they turned and were gone yet again without a word passed between us.



 

Sheldon Birnie is a writer who calls Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada home. He can be found lurking online @badguybirnie

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