A Season Unknown

Keith Cohen

August 29, 2022 
The following is from Keith Cohen's debut novel A Season Unknown. Cohen is a clinical child and adolescent psychologist practicing in Westwood, MA. He lives outside of Boston with his wife. A Season Unknown received the 2022 National Indie Excellence Award - Finalist for Literary Fiction.

The red fox appeared out of nowhere. Judith went cold with terror, her heart shuddered, and her head swelled with a sharp throbbing pain. She had not taken her eyes off of her little boy for more than a moment and he had wandered across the yard. Judith felt numb and woozy, sounds suddenly grew muffled and distant, her vision narrowed and became distorted. Malach was just at her side, and now he stood alone, so far from her warmth and safety. Everything became a blur of agonizingly slow movement.

The animal sniffed at Malach’s ankle and then raised its head, the white fur on its chest and neck exposed. Malach lifted his arms and took two steps back. The fox pressed forward, looming over him, licking at his throat.

From deep in her lungs sputtered a guttural sound that erupted in a thunderous shriek. The long tunnel of vision that separated her from her child collapsed and the animal came into sharp relief. She raced to her son, arms waving wildly, screams echoing in every direction. Startled, the fox, with its sleek body, thick and bushy tail, fixed its penetrating gaze on her, its eyes cold and unyielding. The animal bared its teeth, then abruptly turned and retreated, looking back several times before disappearing into the thicket.

Judith scooped up her child and held him tightly in her arms, her body trembling, her heart beating out of her chest. “I’m here. I’m here,” Judith said, repeating her words reassuringly. “Everything is okay.”

Malach cried out for the animal. “Fox, fox! Mommy, the fox.” Her two-year-old son already knew the name for the beast and said it over and over as he reached one hand out toward the vanquished creature in a plea for its return, unaware of the danger he had just faced.

Thank God he was safe. Judith felt lightheaded, a wrenching churning in the pit of her stomach. She tried to clear her head, then slowly surveyed the yard. With Malach pressed close to her chest, she breathlessly returned to the house.

She was afraid to let herself contemplate what could have been. She swore to herself that she would never let him out of her sight again. For many days Judith did not dare permit him to venture outside. He sat himself down near the sliding glass doors of the kitchen and looked out at the woods that surrounded the house. He ignored the toys she put before him, pushed away books, glazed in front of the television or computer. He whined and cried until she finally relented. With Judith holding his hand firmly, watching his every movement and vigilant to the surroundings, Malach stepped again outdoors, and a smile spread across his face.

It was some time after resuming outdoor activity with Malach that she told Mark about the incident. The version of the story was carefully amended, as she was too ashamed to admit to her husband the ugly lapse in her caretaking. With his head in his planner, he buttered his toast and carefully salted his usual breakfast of three poached eggs. Barely registering her concern, he told her not to worry, that the Lord was looking over Malach. Even with the threat of harm to their son, Mark was distracted and distant, more consumed with his new job and the needs of everyone else in the community than his own family.

Now with Malach recently turned five, Judith looked out from the sliding glass doors of the kitchen to check on her son. Memories of those events were still vivid in her mind. Malach was playing by the stream that ran near the back of the house and was a bit further off than she liked, but she took a deep breath and went to make a pot of coffee. Malach approached the edge of the creek, jumped up, and splattered the wet, saturated soil. He did it again, and then again, each time watching the mud squish between his toes and then slip around and over his bare feet. It was smooth and slick from the icy cold water of early spring. He stepped back and looked at his imprints, waiting as they slowly dissolved, the moisture leeching up through the ground, softening and then filling the hollows left by the soles of his feet. He squatted and traced with his finger the marks left by his heels or toes, his forehead scrunched and eyes riveted as he worked. When he was done, he walked away without so much as a glance back.

Heading toward the yard, he stepped over loose branches and soggy areas of flattened grasses, located a dry spot, and flopped down. The sun was strong and warm air pockets floated above the ground. He looked around, first up at a small flock of red-winged blackbirds in a tree, and then glanced toward the sound of a screeching hawk high in the sky.

With a cup of hot coffee in her hand, Judith looked out at her son again. He was so handsome, she thought, his dark brown hair always tangled and awry, big brown eyes wide and curious, an easy smile that melted her heart. She spent countless hours sitting at her kitchen table, carefully following Malach’s activities. He was always busy, whether it was climbing on a cluster of old tree stumps, crawling under bushes and through gnarled undergrowth, digging holes in the ground, gathering and piling rocks, or watching ants swarm in and out of small openings in the soil. Other times, he was quiet and still, absorbed by the sounds around him. He listened with rapt intensity to the gusts of wind, the rustling of leaves, the chirps of crickets, the high-pitched calls of cicadas, or the humming strains of working bees. The rich smells of the early emerging spring growth, the fragrance of fully blossomed wildflowers of summer, or the pungent odor of decaying plants in the fall, all captured his attention.

Despite the warming weather, it was still too cool for the short-sleeved shirt he wore. Judith had long acquiesced to his choices. He hated wearing his shoes, balked at efforts to put gloves on him, and was always too hot for a coat, or a hat, or any outer garment for that matter. On bitterly cold days she had to force him to wear extra layers and keep his boots on his feet. Countless times she re-bundled him and as many times the clothes would come off. It took a long time for her worries to subside and to accept that he was suited to the climate, regardless of the time of year, and never got sick. His cheeks were rosy, his hands warm, and his feet already toughened to the terrain.

Judith took a sip of the hot coffee and remembered back to a time shortly after the encounter with the fox, to the beginning of events that would reshape her life.

Filled with excitement, Malach had popped out from of a huge pile of autumn leaves in the yard. “Surprise, Mommy! Here I am.” Then tunneling back under he went. “You can’t find me,” he said as he burst out again, laughing with delight. Judith found his enthusiasm joyous. “More leaves, Mommy, more.” As she slowly gathered another stack and then turned to place it on top of him, she was stunned to see a small bird perched on his finger. It was a beautiful little creature with a yellow breast and some white markings on its face. It fluttered repeatedly in the air, each time settling on his hand as he giggled, and it whistled and cawed in response. She struggled to catch her breath and stood frozen watching the exchange.

What was transpiring between Malach and the tiny winged creature sent a shiver through her. She was used to his talking to the birds, squirrels, raccoons, deer, or anything else that was alive on the land, flying through the air, or swimming in the water. She loved his imagination, brimming with the pleasure of discovery of every new part of his world. But what became evident that day, and in the weeks, months, and years to follow was the interest, or rather, the outright preoccupation of all of these creatures with him. He was the focus of their imaginations.

Judith let out a deep sigh remembering those early encounters as she watched him now at play in the yard. He sprang up from where he was sitting, and headed toward a pile of sticks, ones he had gathered in the fall. After a short time, she went to prepare him lunch.

With a curious look on his face, and a sudden widening of his eyes, Malach bent down on his hands and knees, then pressed his face close to the ground. “It’s you. Where were you?” Sleeping. “I missed you. I didn’t think you were ever coming back. Why didn’t you come out and play?” I sleep a lot when it’s cold. Malach reached out and the small chipmunk darted into his hand and he cradled it close to his chest. “I was thinking about you so much. Were you sleeping the whole winter?” Most of the time. “Where? Where do you sleep?” In the ground. “Oh. What made you come back?” There’s lots of work to do. Not much food left, barely made it through the cold.

Malach rose to his feet holding the chipmunk in one hand and marched off. He reached into his pocket and found part of a chocolate chip cookie. “I took it from the cabinet. I didn’t like the oatmeal this morning. It was too thick.” He gave it to the chipmunk, who held it in its front paws and nibbled on it. The small creature dropped the uneaten piece and followed it to the ground, not in search of the cookie, but rather scurrying toward the stone wall on the far side of the field.

Malach trotted behind with his eyes following its movement. “Are you okay? You’re going slow.” My bones hurt. The chipmunk found a crevice between the rocks and entered the wall. Malach kneeled looking for him between the stones and then crawled slowly along the edge of the loosely stacked fieldstones. The small animal seemed to come out of nowhere and stood on top of the low wall. Before Malach even noticed the chipmunk, it ducked back into a crack in the stones. While Malach waited, he inspected the lichen on one of the rocks, scraping it with his finger, then smelling the tiny piece he had dislodged before flicking it away. The chipmunk appeared again. I think this is the spot.

Malach picked up the chipmunk and together they walked further away from the house. Checking on him, Judith opened the sliding glass door and hollered for him to stay close and not wander off. She called again until he acknowledged her and began to move back toward the house. This was the parenting to which she had become resigned, inadequately supervising from the window her little boy at play with a wild rodent. She often anguished over her own judgment and mothering, sometimes questioned whether she was losing her mind in this desolate place. The winters were dark and endless, springs seemed never to arrive, summers passed before they began, and fiery autumns faded as quickly as they ignited.

Malach sat on the grass with the chipmunk, each facing the other as he leaned back and supported himself with his arms while the small animal perched on his bent knee. There were not as many acorns this past season. Food’s scarce. It was better the last cold stretch. “I’ll bring you something to eat. My mom’s making a cake today. She’ll give me a piece for you.” Malach lifted his head to the stirring wind for some time and then looked back at the chipmunk. “I can feel the cold coming.” I noticed it, too. “Make sure you stay in the ground tonight.”

No matter how many times Judith witnessed these occurrences, each one astonished her as if it were the first. It was as though the world held its breath, a still silence permeated the air, the forces of the earth spotlighted on her son. Mark had yet to experience any of it. She knew she had to talk with him. It was bothering her more that she withheld this part of her life and this part of Malach’s life from him. Was it some sort of retaliation for being taken to this remote and isolated place, self-preservation in a life of loneliness? Or was it disbelief in her own senses, a fear that Malach might not reveal his world to anyone else and she would surely be seen as unfit.

There was something in Malach’s behavior when his father was present that made her believe that he did not want him to know. He never told Mark about the animals, not about his favorite places to play and explore, not about the changes he could sense in the weather, not about the arrival of migrating birds or the emergence of hibernating animals, not about shoots of spring growth that were starting to emerge, not about the pair of red-tailed hawks that were preparing to build their nest. This was part of his rambling chatter throughout the day, talking to her as though all that he experienced was obvious and that she knew all these things, too. She sometimes imagined, for a moment, her husband standing next to her, watching the magic their little boy spun, spellbound by the seamless exchanges between him and the world all around. But like Malach, she too had no desire to include Mark.


From A Season Unknown. Used with permission of the publisher K+P Press. Copyright 2022 by Keith Cohen.

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