The Snow Child: A Novel (31 page)

BOOK: The Snow Child: A Novel
10.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

 

“Can you sit up?” Jack held a canteen. She wondered how long she had slept. Beyond the fire it was still dark.

“I think so.” He grasped her around the shoulders and helped her to sit. When she reached for the canteen, the blanket fell open to reveal her bare arm. She was naked.

“Careful. Don’t let that loose,” he said.

“My clothing? Why on earth…”

He pointed toward the fire where her dress hung from a branch, along with her undergarments. Closer to the fire, her boots were propped open near the flames.

“There was no other way,” he said, almost as if apologizing.

She tried not to gulp the water, but to take small sips. “Thank you.”

“Sometimes I could hear you calling my name,” he said. “I thought I heard you in the brush, but it was just a cow moose and her calf. Then I tripped over the lantern, and I knew you had to be nearby.”

Jack went to the fire. He took down her dress and shook it out.

“It stopped snowing,” he said as he crawled under the tree with her. He groaned softly as he leaned against the trunk and put his arm around her. She thought of his barely mended back. “Cleared off and got cold. You were soaked through.”

Mabel leaned her head against his chest. “How does she do it?”

He didn’t answer at first, and Mabel wondered if he understood her question.

“She’s got something different about her,” he said finally. “She might not be a snow fairy, but she knows this land. Knows it better than anyone I’ve ever met.”

She cringed at the words “snow fairy,” but knew there was no malice in it.

“I can’t imagine, spending every night out here. How could you let her… I’m not angry anymore. It’s not that. But why didn’t you worry about her? She’s just a little child.”

He kept his eyes to the campfire. “When she didn’t come back in the spring, I went up to the mountains looking for her. I was sick with worry. I thought I’d made a terrible mistake, and that we’d lost her.”

“I can’t bear the thought of something happening to her,” Mabel said. “She may be lovely and brave and strong, but she’s just a little girl. And with her father dead… she’s out here all
alone. If something were to happen to her, we would be to blame, wouldn’t we?”

Jack nodded. He put his arms around her again. “It’s true,” he said.

“I just don’t think I could stand it. Not again. Not after…” She expected Jack to shush her, to pull away, to go back to the fire, but he didn’t.

“I’ve always regretted that I didn’t do more,” she said. “Not that we could have saved that one. But that I didn’t do more. That I didn’t have courage enough to hold our baby and see it for what it was.”

She turned to look up into his face.

“Jack. I know it’s been so long. My God, ten years now. But tell me that you said a proper goodbye. Tell me you said a prayer over its grave. Please tell me that.”

“His.”

“What?”

“His grave. It was a little boy. And before I laid him in the ground, I named him Joseph Maurice.”

Mabel laughed out loud.

“Joseph Maurice,” she whispered. It was a name of contention, the two names that would have shocked both their families—two great-grandfathers, one on each side, each a black sheep in his own right. “Joseph Maurice.”

“Is that all right?”

She nodded.

“Did you say a prayer?”

“Of course,” and he sounded hurt that she had asked.

“What did you say? Do you remember?”

“I prayed for God to take our tiny babe into his arms and cradle him as we would have, to rock him and love him and keep him safe.”

Mabel let out a sob and hugged Jack with her bare arms. He tucked the blanket around her and they held each other.

“A boy? Are you certain?”

“I’m pretty sure, Mabel.”

“Curious, isn’t it? All that time the baby was inside me, tossing and turning, sharing my blood, and I thought it was a girl. But it wasn’t. It was a little boy. Where did you bury him?”

“In the orchard, down by the creek.”

She knew exactly where. It was the place they had first kissed, had first held each other as lovers.

“I should have known. I looked for it because I realized I hadn’t said goodbye.”

“I would have told you.”

“I know. We are fools sometimes, aren’t we?”

Jack got up to feed the fire, and when it was burning well he sat again with Mabel under the tree.

“Are you warm enough?”

“Yes,” she said. “But won’t you come in with me?”

“I’ll only make you cold.”

She insisted, helping him strip out of his damp clothes and opening her blankets to him. He did bring in cold air, at first, and the coarse wool of his long underwear rubbed against her bare skin, but she burrowed more tightly against him. Up and down her body, she felt his leanness, how age had pared back his muscles and left loosening skin and smooth bone, but his hold was still firm. She rested her head on his chest and watched the fire flare and send sparks up into the cold night sky.

CHAPTER 30
 

M
abel would reduce the child to the shabby clothes and slight frame of a flesh-and-blood orphan, and it pained Jack to watch. Gone was Mabel’s wonder and awe. In her eyes Faina was no longer a snow fairy, but an abandoned little girl with a dead mother and father. A feral child who needed a bath.

“We should inquire about schooling in town,” she said just days after Jack had told her the truth. “I understand the territorial government has assigned a new teacher to the area. Students meet in the basement of the boardinghouse. We’d have to take her by wagon each morning, or she could stay there for several days at a time.”

“Mabel?”

“Don’t look at me like that. She’ll survive. If she can spend months alone in the wilderness, she can certainly stay a few nights in town.”

“I just don’t know if…”

“And those clothes. I’ll get some fabric and sew her some new dresses. And some real shoes. She won’t need those moccasins anymore.”

 

But the child was not so easily tamed.

I don’t want to, she said when Mabel showed her to the tub of hot water.

Look at yourself, child. Your hair is a mess. You’re filthy.

Mabel pulled at the ragged sleeve of the child’s cotton dress.

This needs to be washed, maybe just thrown out. I’m making several new dresses for you.

The child backed toward the door. Mabel grabbed her by the wrist, but Faina yanked it free.

“Mabel,” Jack said, “let the child go.”

The girl was gone for days, and when she returned she was skittish, but Mabel took no heed. She pinched at the girl’s clothing and hair, and asked if she had ever gone to school, ever looked at a book. With each prying question, the child took another step back. We’re going to lose her, he wanted to tell Mabel.

Jack wasn’t one to believe in fairy-tale maidens made of snow. Yet Faina was extraordinary. Vast mountain ranges and unending wilderness, sky and ice. You couldn’t hold her too close or know her mind. Perhaps it was so with all children. Certainly he and Mabel hadn’t formed into the molds their parents had set for them.

It was something more, though. Nothing tethered Faina to them. She could vanish, never return, and who was to say she had ever been loved by them?

 

No, the child said.

Faina’s eyes darted from Mabel to Jack, and in the quick blue he saw that she was afraid.

I will no longer allow you to live like an animal, Mabel said.
Her movements were sharp around the kitchen table as she stacked dishes, gathered leftovers. The girl watched, a wild bird with its heart jumping in its chest.

Starting right now, you will stay here with us. No more running off into the trees, gone for days on end. This will be your home. With us.

No, the child said again, more forcefully.

Jack waited for her to fly away.

“Please, Mabel. Can we talk about this later?”

“Look at her. Will you just look at her? We’ve neglected her. She needs a clean home, an education.”

“Not in front of the child.”

“So we let her go back into the wilderness tonight? And the next, and the next? How will she find her way in this world if all she knows is the woods?”

As far as Jack could see, the girl found her way fine, but it was senseless to argue.

“Why?” Mabel pleaded to him. “Why would she want to stay out there, alone and cold? Doesn’t she know we would treat her kindly?”

So that was it. Beneath her irritation and desire to control was love and hurt.

“It’s not that,” Jack said. “She belongs out there. Can’t you see that? It’s her home.”

He reached up to Mabel, kept her from picking up a bowl. He took her hands in his. Her fingers were slender and lovely, and he rubbed his thumbs along them. How well he knew those hands.

“I’m trying, Jack. I am. But it is simply unfathomable to me. She chooses to live in dirt and blood and freezing cold, tearing apart wild animals to eat. With us she would be warm and safe and loved.”

“I know,” he said. Didn’t he want the child as a daughter, to brag about and shower with gifts? Didn’t he want to hold her and call her their own? But this longing did not blind him. Like a rainbow trout in a stream, the girl sometimes flashed her true self to him. A wild thing glittering in dark water.

Mabel let go of his hands and turned to the child.

You will stay here tonight, she said.

She took hold of the child’s shoulders, and for a moment Jack thought she would shake her. But then Mabel smoothed her hands down the girl’s arms and spoke more gently.

Do you understand? And tomorrow we will go to town to ask about school classes.

The girl’s cheeks flushed, and she shook her head no, no.

Faina, this is not your decision. It is in your best interest. You must stop running around like a wild sprite. You will grow up some day, and then what?

No, she said.

Quickly, quietly, the child was nearly away, already wearing her hat and coat. Mabel stepped toward her.

It’s for you, don’t you understand?

BOOK: The Snow Child: A Novel
10.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

A Matter of Marriage by Lesley Jorgensen
The Guestbook by Martin, Holly
The Undrowned Child by Michelle Lovric
Hope Farm by Peggy Frew