Authors: Eowyn Ivey
Mabel kept herself calm and seated.
“Did you say a coal mine?” she asked.
“I know times are tough, Mabel, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of,” George said and winked at her. “You just keep your man at home and hang in there. It’ll all work out.”
When George and his sons began to talk about the many gruesome ways a man can be maimed and killed underground, Mabel turned to Jack and whispered fiercely, “You were thinking of leaving me to work in the mine?”
“We’ll talk of it later,” he said.
“All you folks have got to do is get a moose in your barn and save your money for spring,” George said.
Mabel frowned, not comprehending. “A moose?” she asked. “In our barn?”
“Not a live one, dear,” she said. “Meat. Just to keep you fed. We’ve done it years past ourselves. You get mighty sick of mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, boiled meat, fried meat, but it’ll get you through.”
“Pretty late in the year for moose,” the youngest boy
mumbled from where he stood in the kitchen, his hands shoved in his pockets. “He’d been better off getting one just before the rut.”
“They’re still out there, Garrett,” George said. “He’ll just have to work a bit harder to find one.”
The boy shrugged doubtfully.
“Don’t mind him,” Esther said, thumbing in the boy’s direction. “He thinks he’s the next Daniel Boone.”
One of the older sons laughed and punched him in the arm. The younger boy clenched his fists and then shoved his older brother hard enough to cause him to bump into the kitchen table. A noisy scuffle commenced, and Mabel was alarmed, until she saw George and Esther taking no notice. Finally, when the ruckus became too much even for the Bensons, Esther hollered, “That’s enough, boys!” and they settled down again.
“Garrett might be too big for his britches, but I tell you, Jack, he is a hand with a rifle.” George jutted his chin proudly toward the youngest boy. “He shot his first moose when he was ten. He brings home more game than all the rest of us.”
Esther leaned toward Mabel and said, “Including all those blessed ptarmigan.”
Mabel tried to smile, but her thoughts were unspooling. He was going to abandon her. Leave her alone in that small, dark cabin.
Now the men were all talking of hunting moose, and once again she had the unsettling sense that they had all conversed on this topic before, and, once again, she was the ignorant stranger.
“You got to carry your rifle with you, even when you’re just working in the fields,” she heard the youngest son tell Jack. “Get up in the foothills. Most times, the snow’d already pushed
’em down to the river. But it’s late in coming, so they’re still up high, eating birch and aspen.”
The boy barely managed to conceal his disdain for Jack. “Too bad you didn’t shoot one in the fall,” he said. “You’re going to have to hunt hard. Moose only herd up during the rut. They’re different then. Bulls go crazy through the woods. Knock their bloody antlers into the trees. Roll in their own piss. Bawl for cows.”
“I heard something, month or so back,” Jack said. “I was out splitting wood, and something started grunting at me out of the woods. Then ‘Thwack. Thwack.’ Like somebody else was chopping wood.”
“Bull moose. Calling to you, smacking his antlers against a tree. He wanted to fight you. He thought you were another bull.” The boy almost smirked, as if Jack were far from the stature of a moose.
Esther saw Mabel’s discomfort but misunderstood it.
“Don’t worry, dear. You’ll get used to moose meat. It can run a little to the tough, gamy side this time of year, but it’ll keep you fed.”
Mabel gave a weak smile.
When it came time to leave, the Bensons tried to insist on Jack and Mabel staying the night, but Jack said they needed to get home to care for the animals, and Mabel said thank you but she slept better in her own bed.
“It’s cold out there tonight,” Esther said as she helped Mabel into her coat.
“We’ll be all right. Thank you, though.”
Esther tucked a jar inside Mabel’s coat, buttoned it for her
as if she were a child, and straightened the collar. “Keep that sourdough starter warm on the way home or you’ll kill it for sure. And remember what I said about adding a bit of flour now and then.”
Mabel hugged the cool jar against herself and thanked Esther again.
It was clear and windy. The moon lit the ruts of the trail and turned the land and trees to blues. As they rode away, Mabel looked back to the lighted windows of the Benson home, and then she pushed her face down into her scarf. Jack cleared his throat. Mabel expected him to say something about his plan to go to the mine. She was prepared to be righteous in her anger.
“They’re quite the family, aren’t they?” he said.
She didn’t speak at first.
“Yes,” she said finally. “They certainly are.”
“Esther took a liking to you. What all did you two talk about?”
“Oh… everything, I suppose.”
Mabel was quiet, then said, “She asked why we never had children.”
“She said we can have their boys anytime we want them.”
Jack chuckled, and Mabel smiled into her scarf despite herself.
he next evening, the snow fell with dusk. The first flakes clumped together as they twirled and fluttered to the ground. First just a few here and there, and then the air was filled with falling snow, caught in the light of the window in dreamy swirls. It brought to Mabel’s mind how it was to be a little girl, kneeling on a sofa at the window to watch winter’s first snowflakes filter through the streetlights.
When she returned to the kitchen window later, she saw Jack emerge from the woods and move through the snow. His hunt had been unsuccessful; she knew by his low head and shuffle.
She went back to preparing dinner. She opened the calico curtains over the kitchen shelves and took out two plates. She spread the tablecloth. She thought of the Bensons’ cluttered cabin and smiled to herself. Esther in her men’s overalls—how confidently she strode into the kitchen and flung the dead turkey onto the counter. Mabel had never met a woman like her. She did not quietly take her leave or feign helplessness or cloak her opinions in niceties.
Last night, George had told the story of how Esther shot a nine-foot grizzly bear in the yard several summers ago. She
was home alone when she heard a loud thumping. When she looked outside, she saw a bear trying to break into the barn. The grizzly stood on his hind legs and slammed his massive paws again and again into the wooden door. Then he dropped to all fours, paced, and put his snout to the logs and snuffled. Mabel would have been terrified, but not Esther. She was spitting mad. No bear was going to get her cows. She calmly walked inside and got a rifle, stepped back into the yard, and promptly shot the bear. Mabel could see her perfectly—Esther standing in the dirt, her feet slightly apart, her aim steady. Never one to hesitate or worry herself with decorum.
Mabel was at the window again. The snow fell faster and thicker. As she watched, Jack walked out of the barn carrying a lantern, and the snow eddied around him in the circle of light. He turned his head, as if he had sensed her eyes on him, and the two of them looked at each other across the distance, each in their pocket of light, snow like a falling veil between them. Mabel couldn’t remember the last time they had so deliberately gazed at each other, and the moment was like the snow, slow and drifting.
When she first fell in love with Jack, she had dreamed she could fly, that on a warm, inky black night she had pushed off the grass with her bare feet to float among the leafy treetops and stars in her nightgown. The sensation had returned.
Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched.
She stood spellbound in her apron, a washrag in her hand.
Perhaps it was the recollection of that dream, or the hypnotic nature of the spinning snow. Maybe it was Esther in her overalls and flowered blouse, shooting bears and laughing out loud.
Mabel set down the rag and untied her apron. She slipped her feet into her boots, put on one of Jack’s wool coats, and found a hat and some mittens.
Outside, the air was clean and cool against her face, and she could smell the wood smoke from the chimney. She let the snow float around her, and then Mabel did what she had as a child—turned her face to the sky and stuck out her tongue. The swirl overhead was dizzying, and she began to spin slowly in place. The snowflakes landed on her cheeks and eyelids, wet her skin. Then she stopped and watched the snow settle on the arms of her coat. For a moment she studied the pattern of a single starry flake before it melted into the wool. Here, and then gone.
Around her feet the snow deepened. She kicked at it lightly, and it clumped, wet and heavy. Snowball snow. She clenched a fistful in her bare hand. The snow compacted and held the shape of her fingers. She pulled on her mittens and balled some snow together, patting and forming it.
She heard Jack’s footsteps and looked up to see him coming toward the cabin. He squinted at her. She so rarely came outside, and never at night. His reaction spurred in her an unpredictable, childish desire. She patted the snowball a few more times, watched Jack and waited. As he neared, she threw it at him, and even as the snowball left her hand, she knew it was an outlandish thing to do and she wondered what would happen next. The snowball thumped into his leg just above the top of his boot.
He stopped, looked at the circle of snow on his pant leg and then up at Mabel, a mix of irritation and confusion on his face,
and then even as his brow stayed furrowed, a small smile appeared at the corner of his lips. He bent and carefully lodged the lantern in the snow beside him, then smacked his gloved hand across the pant leg, dusting away the snow. Mabel held her breath. He remained bent over, his hand down by his boots, and then, quicker than Mabel could react, he scooped up a handful of snow and tossed a perfectly formed snowball at her. It smacked her in the forehead. She stood motionless with her arms at her sides. Neither of them spoke. The snow fell around them, on the tops of their heads and their shoulders. Mabel wiped the wet snow from her forehead and saw Jack, his mouth open.
“I… that’s not… I hadn’t meant to—”
And she laughed. Melting snow dripped down her temples, snowflakes landed on her eyelashes. She laughed and laughed until she was doubled over, and then she grabbed another handful of snow and threw it at Jack, and he threw one back, and the snowballs lobbed through the air. Most of them fell at each other’s feet, but sometimes they softly thumped into shoulders and chests. Laughing, they chased each other around the cabin, dodging behind the log corners and peeking out in time to see another snowball coming. The hem of Mabel’s long skirt dragged in the snow. Jack chased her, a snowball in each hand. She tripped and fell, and as he ran to her she flung loose snow at him, all the time laughing, and he gently tossed the snowballs down at her. Then he put his hands to his knees, bent at the back and breathing loudly.
“We’re too old for this,” he said.
He reached down and pulled Mabel to her feet until they stood chest to chest, panting and smiling and covered in snow. Mabel pressed her face into his damp collar and he wrapped
his arms, thick with his wool coat, around her shoulders. They stood that way for a while, letting the snow fall down upon them.