The Snow Child: A Novel (4 page)

BOOK: The Snow Child: A Novel
2.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Jack said people in town were relieved the snow hadn’t come—the train tracks were clear and the mine was running. But others worried the deep freeze would mean a late spring and a late start on planting.

The days diminished. Light lasted just six hours, and it was a feeble light. Mabel organized her hours into patterns—wash, mend, cook, wash, mend, cook—and tried not to imagine floating beneath the ice like a yellow leaf.

Baking day was a small gift, a reason to look forward. When it came, she rose early and was taking out the bin of flour and can of lard when she felt Jack’s hand on her shoulder.

“No need,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Betty told me to hold off on the pies.”

“This week?”

“For good. She’s got her sister baking for her.”

“Oh,” Mabel said. She put the flour back on the shelf, and was surprised at the strength of her disappointment. The pies had been her only real contribution to the household, a task she took some pride in. And there was the money.

“Will we have enough, Jack, without it?”

“I’ll work it out. Don’t worry yourself about it.”

Mabel now recalled waking to find his side of the bed empty. He had been at the kitchen table in wavering candlelight, papers spread in front of him. She had gone back to sleep, not thinking of it at the time. But this morning, he looked so old and tired. He walked with a slight stoop, and as he climbed out of bed he had groaned and held the small of his back. When Mabel asked if he was all right, he mumbled something about the horse but said he was fine. She had started to fuss about him, but he waved her off. Leave it be, he said. Just leave it be.

Mabel brought him leftover biscuits and a hard-boiled egg for breakfast.

“George Benson and his boys are coming over later today to help me skid logs,” he said as he peeled the egg. He didn’t seem to notice her stare.

“George Benson?” she asked. “And who is George Benson?”

“Hmm? What?”

“I’ve never met the man.”

“I know I’ve mentioned him before.” He took a bite of egg, and with a half-full mouth said, “You know, he and Esther live just downriver from town.”

“No. I did not know.”

“They’ll be here in a few hours. Don’t worry about lunch—we’ll work on through. But figure three extra plates for dinner.”

“I thought… Didn’t we agree… Why are they coming here?”

Jack was quiet, and then he got up from the table and picked up his leather boots from beside the door. He sat back in the chair, pulled them onto his feet, and laced them in quick, jabbing motions.

“What am I supposed to say, Mabel? I need the help.” He kept his head down and tugged the laces tight. “It’s just that simple.” He grabbed his coat from the hook, buttoning as he stepped outside, as if he couldn’t wait to get out the door.


George Benson and two of his sons arrived an hour or so later. The older boy looked to be eighteen or twenty, the younger not much more than thirteen or fourteen. Mabel watched through the window as they met Jack at the barn. They shook hands all around, Jack nodding and grinning. The men gathered tools and headed toward the field, leading the team of draft horses the Bensons had brought. They never came to the cabin. She waited for Jack to look for her in the window, to give a wave as he sometimes did in the mornings, but he didn’t.

Evening came, and Mabel lit the lamps and cooked a dinner for them. When the men came in from working, she would try to be gracious, but not overly friendly. She didn’t want to encourage this. Jack might need help this particular day, but they were not in need of friends or neighbors. Otherwise, why had they come here? They could have stayed home, where there were people enough for anyone. No, the point had been to find some solace on their own. Hadn’t Jack understood that?

When the men returned, they didn’t give Mabel two blinks.
They weren’t rude. George Benson and his boys nodded politely and said thank you and ma’am and please pass the potatoes, but without ever really looking at her, and mostly they talked loudly to one another about work horses and the weather and the crops. They joked about broken tools and the whole blasted idea of “homesteading” in this godforsaken place and George slapped his knee and asked pardon for his swear words and Jack laughed out loud and the two boys stuffed their mouths full. All the while Mabel stayed by the kitchen counter, just outside of the light of the oil lamp.

They were going to be partners, she and Jack. This was going to be their new life together. Now he sat laughing with strangers, when he hadn’t smiled at her in years.


Later, after dinner, George dragged his tired boys to their feet and told them it was time to head home.

“Your mother will be wondering where the devil we went to,” he said. He nodded at Mabel. “Much thanks for the great meal. You know, I told Jack here that you two ought to come over our way sometime. Esther sure would like to meet you. Most of the homesteaders around here are grubby old bachelors. She could stand to have some female companionship.”

She should thank them for coming to help and say she’d be over any day now to meet his wife, but she said nothing. She could see herself through their eyes—an uptight, Back-East woman. She didn’t like what she saw.

After George and his boys left, she heated water on the woodstove and washed the plates, finding some satisfaction in the clatter, but her anger was deflated when she saw that Jack had long since fallen asleep in his chair. She was left with her own ineffective bustle and noise.

Covering her hands with her apron, she picked up the basin of dirty dishwater, pushed open the latch on the door with an elbow, and stepped outside. She strode across the hard-packed yard and threw the water into a small ravine behind the cabin. Steam billowed around her and slowly dissipated. Overhead the stars glittered metallic and distant, and the night sky seemed cruel to her. She let the cold air fill her nostrils and chill her skin. Here by the cabin the air was calm, but she could hear the wind roar down the Wolverine River.


It was several days before Jack mentioned the Bensons again, but he broached the subject as if halfway into an ongoing conversation. “George said we should come by about noon on Thanksgiving. I told him you’d make up one of your pies. He’s missing them down at the hotel.”

Mabel didn’t agree or protest or ask questions. She wondered how Jack could be sure she had even heard him.

As she flipped through her recipe box, trying to decide what to bake, she thought of Thanksgivings back in the Allegheny River valley, where Jack’s aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and grandchildren, friends and neighbors, gathered at the family farm for the feast. Those days had been the worst for Mabel. Even as a child she was uneasy with crowds, but as she got older she found the bantering and prying even more excruciating. While the men walked the orchards to discuss business, she was trapped in the women’s realm of births and deaths, neither of which she was comfortable turning into idle chat. And just below the surface of this prattle was the insinuation of her failure, whispered and then hushed as she entered and left rooms. Perhaps, the whispers went, Jack should have chosen a heartier woman, a woman who wasn’t afraid of hard work and who had
the hips for childbirth. Those highbrows might be able to discuss politics and great literature, but could they birth a child, for God’s sake? Do you see the way she carries herself, like she couldn’t turn her nose any higher? Back as straight as a stick. An oh-so-delicate constitution. Too proud to take in an orphan child.

Mabel would excuse herself to go out of doors for some fresh air, but that only attracted the attention of a nosy great-aunt or well-meaning sister-in-law who would advise her that if she were only more approachable, more friendly, then perhaps she would get on better with Jack’s family.

Maybe it would be the same with the Bensons. Maybe they would presume her unfit to survive as a homesteader in Alaska or judge her barren and cold and a burden to Jack. Already a pit of resentment grew inside her. She thought of telling Jack she was too ill to go. But early Thanksgiving morning she rose, well before Jack, put more wood in the stove, and began rolling out the dough. She would make a walnut pie with her mother’s recipe, and also a dried-apple pie. Was it enough, two pies? She had watched the boys eat, swallowing great mouthfuls and cleaning plates effortlessly. Maybe she should make three. What if the crusts were tough, or they didn’t like walnuts or apples? She shouldn’t care what the Bensons thought, and yet the pies were to represent her. She might be curt and ungrateful, but by God she could bake.

With the pies in the woodstove oven, Mabel chose a heavy cotton dress that she hoped would be appropriate. She heated the iron on the stovetop. She wanted to look presentable, but not like an overdressed outsider. Once she was ready and the pies were done, she gathered wool blankets and face wraps for her and Jack. It would be a long, cold ride in the open wagon.

After Jack had fed and watered the animals and harnessed
the horse, Mabel sat beside him on the wagon seat, the still-warm pies wrapped in towels on her lap. She felt an unexpected shiver of excitement. Whatever happened at the Bensons’, it was good to be out of the cabin. She had not left the homestead for weeks. Jack, too, seemed more chipper. He clicked his tongue at the horse and, as they followed the trail off their property, he pointed out to Mabel where he had been clearing and told her of his ideas for the spring. He described how the horse had nearly killed him that day, and how it had spooked at a red fox.

Mabel threaded her arm into the crook of his.

“You’ve accomplished a great deal.”

“I couldn’t have done it without the Bensons. Those work horses of theirs are something else. Puts this beast to shame.” He gave the reins a gentle shake.

“Have you met his wife?”

“Nope. Just George and his sons. George used to be a gold miner, when he was younger, but he met Esther and they decided to settle down and have a family.” Jack hesitated, cleared his throat. “Anyways, he seems like a good man. He’s sure been a help to us.”

“Yes. He has.”

When they arrived at the Bensons’, someone came out of the barn hoisting a flapping, headless turkey. It was George, she thought at first, but this person was too short and had a thick gray braid hanging below a wool cap.

“Must be Esther,” Jack said.

“Do you think so?”

The woman raised her chin in greeting, then wrestled with the huge dying bird in her arms. Blood splattered about her feet.

BOOK: The Snow Child: A Novel
2.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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