Authors: Eowyn Ivey
Then Jack pulled away, brushed snow from his wet hair, and reached for the lantern.
“Wait,” she said. “Let’s make a snowman.”
“A snowman. It’s perfect. Perfect snow for a snowman.”
He hesitated. He was tired. It was late. They were too old for such nonsense. There were a dozen reasons not to, Mabel knew, but instead he set the lantern back in the snow.
“All right,” he said. There was reluctance in the hang of his head, but he pulled off his leather work gloves. He took her cheek in his bare hand, and with his thumb wiped melted snow from beneath her eye.
The snow was perfect. It stuck in thick layers as they rolled it into balls along the ground. Mabel made the last, smallest one for the head, and Jack stacked them one atop the other. The figure barely stood above his waist.
“It’s kind of small,” he said.
She stepped back and inspected it from a distance.
“It’s just fine,” she said.
They patted snow into the cracks between the snowballs, smoothed the edges. He walked away from the light of the lantern and cabin window, into a stand of trees. He came back with two birch branches, and he stuck one into each side of their creation. Now it had arms.
“A girl. Let’s make it a little girl,” she said.
She knelt and began shaping the bottom into a skirt that spread out from the snow girl. She slid her hands upward, shaving away the snow and narrowing the outline until it looked like a little child. When she stood up, she saw Jack at work with a pocketknife.
“There,” he said. He stepped back. Sculpted in the white snow were perfect, lovely eyes, a nose, and small, white lips. She even thought she could see cheekbones and a little chin.
“You don’t like it?” He sounded disappointed.
“No. Oh no. She’s beautiful. I just didn’t know…”
How could she speak her surprise? Such delicate features, formed by his calloused hands, a glimpse at his longing. Surely he, too, had wanted children. They had talked about it so often when they first married, joking they would have a baker’s dozen but really planning on only three or four. What fun Christmas would be with a household full of little ones, they told each other their first quiet winter together. There was an air of solemnity as they opened each other’s presents, but they believed someday their Christmas mornings would reel with running children and squeals of delight. She sewed a small stocking for their firstborn and he sketched plans for a rocking horse he would build. Maybe the first would be a girl, or would it be a boy? How could they have known that twenty years later they would still be childless, just an old man and an old woman alone in the wilderness?
As they stood together, the snow fell heavier and faster, making it difficult to see more than a few feet.
“She needs some hair,” he said.
“Oh. I’ve thought of something, too.”
Jack went toward the barn, Mabel to the cabin.
“Here they are,” she called across the yard when she came back out. “Mittens and a scarf for the little girl.”
He returned with a bundle of yellow grass from near the barn. He stuck individual strands into the snow, creating wild, yellow hair, and she wrapped the scarf around its neck and placed the mittens on the ends of the birch branches, the red string that joined them across the snow child’s back. Her sister had knitted them in red wool, and the scarf was a stitch Mabel had never seen before—dewdrop lace, her sister called it. Through the broad pattern, Mabel could see white snow.
She ran to a corner of the cabin where a wild cranberry bush grew. She picked a handful of the frozen berries, returned to the snow girl, and carefully squeezed the juice onto her lips. The snow there turned a gentle red.
She and Jack stood side by side and gazed at their creation.
“She’s beautiful,” she said. “Don’t you think? She’s beautiful.”
“She did turn out, didn’t she?”
Standing still, she became aware of the cold through her damp clothes and trembled.
She shook her head.
“Let’s go in and warm up.”
Mabel didn’t want it to end. The quiet snow, the closeness. But her teeth began to chatter. She nodded.
Inside, Jack added several birch logs to the woodstove and the fire crackled. Mabel stood as close as she dared and peeled off wet mittens, hat, coat. He did the same. Clumps of snow fell onto the stovetop and sizzled. Her dress hung heavy and wet against her skin, and she unbuttoned it and stepped out of it. He unlaced his boots and pulled his damp shirt off over his
head. Soon they were naked and shivering beside each other. She was unaware of their bare skin until he stepped closer and she felt his rough hand at the small of her back.
“Better?” he asked.
She reached up over his shoulders where his skin was still cool to the touch, and when she pressed her nose into the crook of his neck, melted snow clung in droplets to his beard.
“Let’s go to bed,” Jack said.
After all these years, still a spot within her fluttered at his touch, and his voice, throaty and hushed in her ear, tickled along her spine. Naked, they walked to the bedroom. Beneath the covers, they fumbled with each other’s bodies, arms and legs, backbones and hip bones, until they found the familiar, tender lines like the creases in an old map that has been folded and refolded over the years.
After, they lay together, Mabel’s cheek against his chest.
“You won’t really go to the mine, will you?”
He put his lips to the top of her head.
“I don’t know, Mabel,” he whispered into her hair. “I’m doing the best I can.”
ack woke to the cold. In the few hours he’d slept the weather had changed. He could smell it and feel it in his arthritic hands. He propped himself on an elbow and grabbed at the nightstand until he found a match and lit the candle. His back and shoulders were stiff as he eased his legs over the side of the bed. He sat on the edge of the mattress until the cold was unbearable. Not far from the pillow where Mabel slept, frost crept between the logs with its feathery crystals. He swore quietly and pulled the quilt up over her shoulder. A warm, secure home—he couldn’t even give her that much. He carried the candleholder into the main room. The heavy metal door on the woodstove clanged noisily as he opened it. A few coals smoldered in the ash.
As he reached for his boots, through the window he saw a flicker. He stood at the frost-edged glass and peered out.
Fresh snow blanketed the ground and glittered and glowed silver in the moonlight. The barn and trees beyond were muted outlines. There, at the edge of the forest, he saw it again. A flash of blue and red. He was groggy with sleep. He closed his eyes slowly, opened them again, and tried to focus.
There it was. A little figure dashed through the trees. Was
that a skirt about the legs? A red scarf at the neck, and white hair trailing down the back. Slight. Quick. A little girl. Running at the edge of the forest. Then disappearing into the trees.
Jack rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. Not enough sleep—that had to be it. Too many long days. He left the window and stepped into his boots, leaving the laces untied. He opened the door, and the chill air sucked the breath out of him. The snow crunched beneath his boots as he walked to the woodpile. It was only as he was returning with an armload of split birch that he noticed their little snow girl. He set the wood on the ground and with empty arms went to where it had stood. In its place was a small, broken heap of snow. The mittens and scarf were gone.
He pushed at the snow with the toe of his boot.
An animal. Maybe a moose had stumbled through. But the scarf and mittens? A raven or a whiskey jack, maybe. Wild birds had been known to snatch things. As he turned away, he caught sight of the tracks. Moonlight fell in the hollows. The prints ran through the snow, away from the cabin and into the trees. He bent over them. The silvery blue light was weak, so at first he didn’t trust his eyes. Coyote, or maybe lynx. Something other than this. He bent closer and touched the track with the tips of his bare fingers. Human footprints. Small. The size of a child’s.
Jack shivered. His skin prickled with goose bumps, and his bare toes ached cold inside his boots. He left the tracks and the pile of snow, stacked the wood in the crook of his arm, and went inside, quickly closing the door behind him. As he shoved each piece of wood into the stove, he wondered if the racket would wake Mabel. Just his eyes playing tricks. It would come to sense in the morning. He stayed beside the woodstove until the fire roared again, and then he closed the damper.
He eased himself beneath the quilt and against Mabel’s warm body, and she moaned softly in her sleep but did not wake. Jack lay beside her, his eyes wide and his brain spinning until finally he drifted into a kind of sleep that wasn’t much different than wakefulness, a mystifying, restless sleep where dreams fell and melted like snowflakes, where children ran soft-footed through the trees, and scarves flapped between black raven beaks.
When Jack woke again it was late morning, the sun was up, and Mabel was in the kitchen. His body was tired and stiff, as if he had never slept at all but instead spent the night splitting wood or bucking hay bales. He dressed and in socked feet made his way to the table. He smelled fresh coffee and hot pancakes.
“I think it worked, Jack.”
“The sourdough starter Esther gave me. Here, try them.”
Mabel set a plate of pancakes on the table.
“Did you sleep all right?” she asked. “You look positively worn out.” With a hand on his shoulder, she reached over him to pour coffee from the blue enamel pot into his cup. He picked up the cup, held it warm between his hands.
“I don’t know. I guess not.”
“It’s so cold out, isn’t it? But beautiful. All that white snow. It’s so bright.”
“You’ve been outside?”
“No. Not since I dashed to the outhouse in the middle of the night.”
He got up from the table.
“Aren’t you going to eat breakfast?” she asked.
“Just going to get some wood. Nearly let the fire go out.”
He put on his coat this time, and some gloves, before opening the door. The snow reflected sunlight so brilliantly he squinted. He walked to the woodpile, then turned back to the cabin and saw the snow child, or what was left of it. Still just a shapeless pile of snow. No scarf. No mittens. Just as it had been last night, but now exposed as truth in the light of day. And the footprints still ran through the snow, across the yard and into the trees. Then he saw the dead snowshoe hare beside the doorstep. He stepped past without pausing. Inside, he let the wood fall to the floor beside the stove in a clamor, then stared without seeing.
“Have you noticed anything?” he finally said.
“You mean the cold snap?”
“No. I mean anything out of the ordinary.”
“I thought I heard something last night. Probably nothing.”