Buried Nitrogen – Dead Wood Falling: A Snow Moon Noir

By Sandra K. Barnidge

Our Leyland cypress died. All at once, it seemed, almost overnight. One week, the evergreen branches were soft, supple, and verdant — it had been our outdoor Christmas tree, and we’d decorated it with shiny colored balls and a pinecone topper. But last summer’s drought had weakened it, and a fungus took over in the wet of early spring. Every branchlet, every single one, turned brown.

It had begun to visibly lean, yet I was still surprised when I tugged it fairly gently and almost the entire rootball lifted from the soggy ground. I pulled slightly harder, snipped the few brittle roots still clinging to earth, and held it fully in my arms. I dragged it to our patch of woods and said goodbye, taken aback at how light and quick the work had been. At how easily something could just … wither away. The absence of it from the backyard unnerved me, and the shallow hole it left behind was like a scar, a rebuke of my failure to tend, to grow.

The distance kept growing between myself and the page. All winter I’d been absorbed in projects like battling my local government, building a directory of artists, and scrambling to keep a toddler and preschooler entertained indoors while we wait impatiently for warmer, playground-friendly weather.  

I was thinking about The Next Manuscript I was planning to write, sure, and reading through a stack of contemporary murder mysteries with an eye on scintillating things like STRUCTURE and PLOT and PACING and TIME ELEMENTS. I even sketched out a couple of the main characters. But something still wasn’t clicking, still wasn’t pushing me to actually open the laptop and type the words “Chapter 1.”

My enthusiasm for The Next Manuscript was quietly dying right in front of me, the taproot of the initial idea failing to take hold and grow. Something was wrong. The vibes were off. The fungus of inertia was taking hold.

Thankfully, an editor intervened. The editor-in-chief of Reckon Review, to be specific.

“Are you in Birmingham?” Meagan Lucas messaged, along with an invitation to a reading featuring ten crime writers from across the country. The night-of, I sped down the highway to a place called the Red Cat Coffee House to listen to rapid-fire tellings of short, violent stories.

The event also happened to take place on the night of February’s full moon, known as the Snow Moon. A symbol of the seasonal transition from dark to light, from hibernation to unfurling, from death to rebirth—you get the gist. I was not aware of the Snow Moon’s significance until the last writer of the night, thriller author Brian Panowich, centered it for us. He surprised the crowd with, of all things, a poem called “Snow Moon,” and a few lines of it stuck with me:

I used to fill my lungs with winter smoke
And I dreamed of my own private wonderland.

Now I am careful what I wish for …
Because, when I wished for the cold, I felt it
When I longed for the night, I lived it

I had no idea what I’d become

While he read, jazz guitarist Cashmere Williams laid it on thick from the back of the stage, and the crowd cheered at the exaggerated saccharinity. Then, Panowich immediately followed up with a story about a murderer dancing with his wife while the police banged down their front door.

There is something thick and rich and boldly defiant about contemporary crime writing, about taking a reader’s attention like a hand to a neck and wrenching it up-close to scenes of gore and grime and blood and bruises. There is something that releases alongside the adrenaline of this kind of work; for both reader and writer, it’s an emotional wringing-out, a protracted, primal scream. The metallic taste of blood on a lip wound you can’t stop licking, that kind of thing.

Crime is, without a doubt, a far different style from the careful lyricism I’ve spent a long time studying and trying to replicate in my own work. For me, listening to the crime writers at the Red Cat was less gentle cross-pollination and more straight-up injection: what felt at first like a kind of auditory violation later morphed into something more like an inoculation, a reminder that grabbing a reader’s attention is not the same as holding it. Pages must keep turning, and sometimes, words must runtogetherlikeariverofbodies to keep blood-shot eyeballs moving all the way to the end. Sometimes, just putting one plot point after another can get the job done, pretty phrases be damned.

I followed Lucas and Panowich to their post-reading round of drinks. We settled on a nearby joint called The Lumbar, which bills itself as a science-inspired bar where “liquid courage is a catalyst to empower every person that walks through the doors to be someone who chases the impossible.” Sounded about right for our lot, and we snuck behind the curtain of a closed-off section to dampen the sound of the karaoke machine cranking out 90’s mainstream in the front of the bar.

For once I didn’t feel that old, familiar sense of creeping self-consciousness that I so often battle when talking to other writers with published books. Instead, I listened with ease to stories about children and fathers and book tours and day jobs. It didn’t take long for me to realize that people who put violence on the page are also often the sort to leave it there and move, instead, with kindness in the real world, where it matters most.

When I parted from the others and made my way back to the highway, I felt something snap back into place, come again into focus. I sensed a new kind of freedom in the mostly-empty space where The New Manuscript still resides. Less gaping wound now, more open field. Less absence of what was, and more invitation to plant something fresh and young and living.

Days later, around the backyard vacancy where I’d pulled up the Leyland cypress, my daughters and I transplanted three persimmon saplings. Someday, if all goes well, those three little sticks will grow up, branch out, and produce tart, distinct fruits still too rare and interesting to find in most American grocery stores.

Now, there is a document on my laptop with the title of The Next Manuscript. It contains a handful of words, not many, but some. It starts like this: “Chapter 1.”

Read more of Sandy’s work at Reckon here.

author Sandra K. Barnidge
Sandra K. Barnidge

Sandra K. Barnidge is an Alabama-based writer with a passion for small towns and overlooked places. Her fiction leans speculative and has appeared in Barren, Nimrod, The Fiddlehead, Reckon Review, Reservoir Ridge, and elsewhere.