Long Winter

by Suzanne Allen

It was a bitter cold; he could feel it in his bones.

Akona disliked waking up so early, the sun was not even up yet.  It was his turn to gather wood for the house.  It had snowed heavily the night before so the trek through the woods was going to be long.  It was only the first weeks into winter.  Oklahoma winters could be unpredictable.

He had grown up spending most of his life within the boundaries of the reservation as a tribal member of the Sauk and Fox Nation of Oklahoma.  Living in the country with his grandparents and an aunt, Akona was an only child and orphan but had numerous relatives within a few miles of his home. 

Today was a big day for him.  Finally, turning sixteen the past September, he got his license. Akona had worked for two summers to save for a car and his aunt finished up repairs on the old pickup they had bought.  His grandparents had finally given him permission to drive to town on his own and visit his friends.

He had practiced driving all spring and summer on the dirt roads in his aunt’s car learning how to remain calm and to control the car if it started sliding.  Those old red dirt and gravel roads became slick after it rained.  Akona felt confident that the snow was not any different.

He got up, washed his face, brushed his teeth, and dressed for the cold.  His dogs patiently waited by the door for him.

His grandparents had already been up for a while watching television and drinking coffee as usual. Stopping briefly, he listened to them talking back and forth in their native tongue. Akona was learning the language through his grandma’s teaching, but he could not hold a conversation yet. 

They were laughing and teasing one another. His grandma Rose was Sauk and Fox, while his grandpa Andy was Euchee.  They had been married for over 50 years, so they understood one another. He kissed each of them on the cheek as he headed to the back door. 

Akona grabbed the burlap off the hook and buttoned up his winter coat. His grandpa threw a stocking cap at him, saying “Cover up those big ears, before they freeze”, laughing as he drank more coffee.

The wind gusted as Akona stepped out onto the enclosed screen porch. The harshness of the cold caught him off guard. The air made him feel slightly disoriented then making his lungs burn as he took in a breath.  It was going to be a hard winter. He was glad they had finished chopping additional ricks of wood before fall time.   

Akona and his Aunt Rachel took turns going to the wood pile every week.  Aunt Rachel was a retired military veteran, now small business owner, and had built a house across the road. She lived there with her husband and kids.  Akona peered across the road but saw the house was still dark, they were most likely still asleep at that time of the morning.

The land they lived on belonged to his grandmother.  Her family received it during the allotments when it was still Indian Territory. Later, the land was opened to settlers eventually becoming a state.  She raised 10 children there, resulting in many generations that would follow. Akona always felt lucky to have them as family when he lost his parents 9 years ago. 

The newly fallen snow had covered up the path to the wood pile at the end of the property.  The glistening snow under the dwindling moonlight and the soft crunching sound under his boots as he walked gave Akona a moment with his thoughts.

Thoughts about his parents always crossed Akona’s mind during winter mornings. He welcomed those quiet moments but vaguely remembered that night. 

When Akona was 7 years old they were driving to the family’s yearly Halloween party get together.  It was an early winter and the sleet turned into freezing rain while driving there that evening.  The roads had become slick causing the car to veer off the road plunging into a frozen pond.   His parents had died from their injuries by the time they were found. Akona was still in his booster seat partially submerged in the water and unconscious.  He could only remember the coldness of the water and crying for his mom.

Those thoughts were weighing heavily on his mind this morning.  The thought of driving on winter roads was making him have anxiety but he had practiced and practiced.  He wanted to assert his independence and had his aunt convince his grandparents to let him drive by himself.  He was going to town to see his friends, grab some pizza, and watch a movie.  Akona had to promise his grandma to be home before dark. She was worried about him driving on the icy roads.

The early morning horizon was beginning to turn pink and blue as the sun started coming up.  Akona had trekked through the snow and started loading up the burlap sack.  His dogs, both Huskies, were happily rolling around enjoying it, he could see their breaths as they pounced on one another. 

Akona made 5 trips back and forth that morning, filling up the woodshed by the house and the wood bin on the back porch.  His grandmother eyed over everything then told him when it was enough.

As he walked back into the house the warm smell of biscuits baking in the oven greeted him. The distinct scent of bacon cooking in the big cast iron skillet on the stove wafted through the air.  He saw on the old wooden table the flowery Pyrex bowl filled with scrambled eggs.  Akona was famished from his early morning chore. He took a shower then changed clothes before sitting down to breakfast.

He spent most of the morning finishing up homework, another requirement by his grandparents before he could go. Then it was time for him to leave for town.

His grandpa had been watching the weather advisories and checking out the window all morning.  Frowning every now and then, as he sipped his coffee.

Akona knew they were worried about his solo trip to town. His aunt assured them that the pickup truck was safe and that the new cell phone given to Akona for his birthday would work, if he needed it.

He grabbed his backpack and threw on his heavy winter coat again while his grandmother was busy wrapping a scarf around him to stay warm.  His grandpa handed him extra spending money and doubled checked Akona’s phone, to make sure it was charged up.  He was given instructions to call when he got to his friend’s house and when he was heading home.  Akona was ready to go, and all the fussing was making him irritable, he wasn’t a little kid anymore.  

He jumped into his new pickup truck.  His aunt had added some new seat covers and a new stereo for him to listen to.  He sat in the truck waiting for it to warm up then set up the blue tooth to his phone so he could play his favorite music.  He looked out the windshield and saw his grandparents peering out the front door watching, so he waved at them.  They waved back and closed the door.

He pulled out of the driveway and started on his way.  It was bumpy going through the snow and his tires spun as he hit pockets of the slushy snow mixed with the red mud.  It took him a few minutes to get to the main road. 

As he looked left and right down the road, he noticed his aunt and uncle standing in their doorway, drinking coffee, and waving at him.  He waved back, then went very slowly down the dirt road to the main highway.  It was only 3 miles, but it felt like it took forever with all the newly fallen snow.  The pickup groaned as it slipped and slide on the road. To his surprise the main highway was clear with no snow.  It only took 25 minutes to arrive on the outskirts of town when he called his grandma.

It was late afternoon, time for Akona to leave his friends and go back home.  As he headed out of town, he was met by a line of traffic and a highway patrolman directing everyone to a side road.  There was a semi-truck overturned on the road.  Akona’s anxiety started to go up.  They were being diverted to the same side road where the accident had occurred.

While he was sitting in traffic Akona called his grandma, told her what happened, and informed her that it was going to take a little longer getting back.  He did not mention the road detour so she would not worry.

As the traffic continued moving the line of cars was starting to thin out and the next thing Akona knew he was the only one on the road.  He could see the same frozen pond getting closer at the bottom of the hill as he approached.  Suddenly feeling nauseous he pulled over and got out to get some air. The realization hit him that he was only a few yards from the accident spot.

The little white crosses someone had put up to mark the spot could be seen just above a small snow drift. They were weathered looking. The written date of the accident was still visible as well as the faded silk flowers.  Standing there he suddenly remembered something about that day.

Akona could see himself sitting in the booster seat and water covering his legs.  He could feel the cold. He felt the warm, wet tears on his face.  He could not see very well because of the dark.  He heard someone saying “Akona, wake up!”  He looked up and it was his mother’s face dimly lit by the dashboard lights. 

She was telling him to stay awake while reassuring him that someone was coming to help.  Then she started singing a native song to help him calm down. He could see his father slumped over but could not hear his voice.  His mother kept telling him how much they loved him.  He felt cold then everything went black. He was unconscious. The next memory was waking up in the hospital with his grandparents and relatives surrounding him.

As Akona stood there reliving that moment, a loud horn and the distinct sound of a car sliding on ice, shook him from the thoughts. He looked back at the road just in time to move out of the way.  It was an old Cadillac moving quickly down the now icy road sliding past him.  It went into the same frozen pond. 

Running quickly and grabbing his phone out of the truck, Akona called 911. He told them where they were and what happened as he made his way to the car. 

The car was partially submerged in the icy cold water.  Unable to open the driver side door, Akona managed to get the window down.  It was an elderly woman and her granddaughter. Helping the woman climb out, Akona then climbed in to free the crying granddaughter from her car seat.  She hung onto his neck as he climbed out of the car.  The grandmother was shaken up but not hurt and the granddaughter had a broken wrist.

Akona got them into his pickup truck to stay warm while they waited.  He called his aunt and told her what happened.  Aunt Rachel asked, “Are you hurt?” then said, “Just stay there, we are on our way.”

While the police, ambulance, and tow truck came, a woman with a long braid walked up to Akona throwing a blanket around him. She hugged and thanked him for helping her mother and daughter.

In those moments, the frozen pond was something to no longer be afraid of, instead, Akona found courage.

***************************************************

Vocal Challenge: Frozen Pond

Submitted: 08/22/2021

Vocal link: https://vocal.media/vocal-plus?via=suzanne

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