There was a foreboding wind that October of 1993, and the Aspens shed their leaves earlier than expected. Our fall expeditions on the 4-wheel drive trails came to a halt, and we stocked up on wood for our stoves.
Our family had yet to experience a harsh winter in Durango, as a drought had plagued the area for several years, leaving the Christmas season without snow on several occasions. We knew little of what was ahead or how to prepare for it.
I anticipated their arrival, but did not envision seeing them for a few more weeks. Much to my surprise, they stood in the yard, looking at the house as I looked out the living room window, with my morning coffee. They were a matriarchal society, with the elder female heading the lineage. She always stood on the front walk, close to the steps when they materialized, and I ran for my jacket and descended the front stairs. We called her Mama Cass, and I noticed how thin and drawn she looked. She had as close a relationship with me as her status would allow, never touching noses, nor sanctioning any physical contact what-so-ever. She stepped back, enabling me to see the entire family.
She was there before me, fully grown and winsome. All of the gangly appearance of a young female had vanished, but I recognized her immediately. We approached each other slowly, the anticipation of the first touch apparent. The ritual began as I bent down to rub noses with her. As we looked at each other, I put my arm around her and we walked together towards her mother, who had brought her new, young twins. They wore their winter coats early, which provoked a few suspicions in my mind. From past experience, I knew that it would take a while before I would be fully introduced to the twins, and I wondered how they would respond to me. Their mother was as warm and loving as ever, having been the first to make physical contact with me six years earlier. Through the chill of that first day, I watched them rest on the hillside, and ventured outside more often, just to be near them in tranquility. I photographed the twins, and rubbed noses with each family member as I came near them.
Several weeks passed and the snow began. A special part of the day was set aside to spend time with them, my concern growing for Mama Cass. As I walked out in the yard one morning, I noticed the twins standing with their grandmother and older sister, yet their mother was missing. I trudged up to the top of our hillside searching for her. A gunshot rang out, and then the most harrowing scream I had ever heard. A hushed existence was all I had ever known of them, and a scream was so out of character for their kind that a chill ran through me, and instinctively I knew that the twins, and my beloved friend had lost their mother. A sorrow overwhelmed me, and I put my arms around her and held her to me.
Sleep was difficult that night, and I shared my grief with my husband as I lay in his arms. He too had come to love them. They were a part of our existence throughout the winter months, and I pondered whether I had been with them so often that I was beginning to take them for granted.
Apprehensive about what I might find the next morning, I ventured out to see Mama Cass, the twins and their older sister standing together on the hillside that I had ascended the day before. The others in their family group were nowhere to be seen. Anxiety overwhelmed me as I watched them together at the top of the slope, and then they disappeared into the forest without one glance in my direction. Sorrow engulfed me. There was nothing ordinary about this vanishing. No explanation that made any sense to me. I walked back to the house, carrying the burden of this loss upon my shoulders as the snow begin to fall, and did not stop for days on end.
Six weeks had passed. Each morning I looked out our living room window, expecting to see them, but they were nowhere in sight. Our driveway had now been plowed three times, the third requiring a large tractor with a snow blower, just so that our car and the UPS truck could get through. The drifts were at least 6 feet tall, and impossible to distinguish much of anything, except for the hillside where they always appeared. I feared the worst. I would never see her again, nor would I be able to initiate a bond with the twins.
The UPS truck came into view one afternoon, and the driver knocked at our door to inform us that one of our treasured friends was dead behind a 6 foot snowbank in our driveway. We threw on our boots and coats and tromped through the snow to find Mama Cass. She had come home to die. The only permanent place that was home in her heart. It was a tribute to me, and to my husband as well. We understood, and as best we could, we performed a proper burial.
My worst fear had surfaced as she was nowhere to be seen. The twins were gone, and Mama Cass was no longer with us. The loss was overwhelming. Our loving friends who had been in our lives every day of every winter season had ceased to exist, and I wondered how I would get through the long winter days ahead without them......without her.
Another week passed, and I had disciplined myself to stop looking for her. Another snow had engulfed our yard, and I went out to shovel a path to the car. As if an unknown entity had tapped me on the shoulder and directed me to look up, I stood erect and gazed at the hillside. She walked down slowly, the snow slowing her passage. With tears streaming down my face, I lifted one foot after the other to reach her. No rituals were performed on that day as I held her in my arms. She was home and that was all that mattered.
Our doctor later explained that Mama Cass, as head of the family knew that death was imminent and had taken the twins to be raised in a different family, and had then returned home to die. It was an amazing set of circumstances and the remainder of that winter of 1993 was spent with my friend walking beside me in the snow, rubbing noses and giving an unvoiced love to each other.
To be continued.............