The Snow Child: A Novel (9 page)

BOOK: The Snow Child: A Novel
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“I saw the child,” Mabel told Jack when he came in for dinner. “The girl you described from the other night—I saw her behind the barn.”

“You sure?”

“Yes. Yes. There was a fox following her, and I thought it
had killed one of our chickens, but it was something else, a wild bird.”

Jack squinted, as if cross.

“I did see her, Jack.”

He nodded and hung his coat on the hook beside the door.

“Have you heard anything about someone missing a child?” she asked. “When you were in town yesterday, did you hear any news?”

“No. Nothing at all.”

“Did you ask? Did you tell anybody about her?”

“No. I didn’t see much point. I figured she’d gone home or they would have gotten together a search party.”

“But she was here again today. Right near our barn. Why would she come here? If she is lost or needs help, why doesn’t she just come to the door?”

He nodded sympathetically, but then changed the subject. He said he hadn’t spotted anything but a cow moose with a calf. They would have to kill the chickens as soon as the sack of feed ran out; they hadn’t enough money to buy more. The good news, he went on, was that he’d run into George at the hotel restaurant yesterday and had invited the Bensons to dinner the coming Sunday.

It wasn’t until this last part that Mabel listened attentively. She was glad the Bensons were coming. Certainly Esther could tell her something about the child; she knew the families in the valley, and maybe she would know why a little girl would be wandering alone through the forest.

CHAPTER 7
 

A
t night when Jack closed his eyes to sleep, tree branches and game trails and snowy cliffs were imprinted on his eyelids so that sleep merged with his long days spent hunting. For days now he had risen most mornings before light and gone out with his rifle and pack to look for moose, feeling like an imposter every time. He wasted most of one afternoon stalking what turned out to be a porcupine chewing on a low-hanging branch. He’d hiked up and down the Wolverine River, into the mountains, back and forth over the foothills, and he was sick to death of it.

He lay in bed longer than usual and considered not getting up at all. But George was right—if he managed to get a moose, he and Mabel could live off meat and potatoes until harvest. They’d run out of coffee, sugar, dried apples, powdered milk, lard. They’d have to kill the chickens and let the horse go thin. There would be no bolts of new fabric or little trinkets from town. It would be a miserable winter, but they wouldn’t starve.

He got up and dressed and decided that tomorrow he would go to town to inquire about the mining job. It might be hard on his old body, but at least he would have something to show for it at the end of the day. Despite the snow, Betty had told him,
the train was running and the mine was open. The Navy had upped its coal order, and the railroad had hired a crew of men to keep the tracks clear. No one knew how long the work would last, but for now they were still hiring.

Town was closed up on Sundays, though, so he might as well throw another day to the woods. He had until afternoon, when the Bensons would arrive for dinner. He left the cabin with his rifle and pack and walked the wagon trail toward the far field. The snow was well over the tops of his boots. He had no intention of hiking up toward the mountains, where it would be even deeper. He’d stick close to home and hope the snow had forced the animals down along the river.

The sky was overcast and leaden, and Jack was weighed down by it. He walked through the field, the snow slowing his way, and entered the woods, but his heart was not in it.

He had never thought himself a city boy. He’d worked hard all his life on the family farm in the Allegheny River valley. He knew how to handle tools and work animals and plow the earth. But back home the land had been farmed for generations, and it showed in its soft curves and stately trees. Even the deer were half tamed, lazy and well fed as they grazed in the fallow fields. As a boy, he had strolled along the creek down by the family orchard. He picked stalks of grass and chewed on their tender ends. The very air had a soft greenness to it, not too cold, not too hot, a gentle breeze. He climbed the friendly branches of oaks and wandered along the backs of grassy knolls. Those aimless walks as a child were among his most peaceful memories.

This was nothing like back home. He didn’t enjoy his solitude in these woods but instead was self-conscious and alert, fearing most of all his own ineptness. When he worked the ground, he stumbled over sprawling roots, axed tree after tree
to extend his clearing by a few feet, and uncovered boulders so large he had to use the horse to drag them from the field. How could this land ever be farmed?

Wherever the work stopped, the wilderness was there, older, fiercer, stronger than any man could ever hope to be. The spindly black spruce were so dense in places you couldn’t squeeze an arm between them, and every living thing seemed barbed and hostile—devil’s club thorns that left festering wounds, stinging nettles that raised welts, and at times swarms of mosquitoes so thick he had to fight panic. In the spring when he first began felling trees and turning over the soil, mosquitoes rose from the disturbed earth in clouds. He wore a head net; it was hard to see, but without it he couldn’t have endured. When he wiped the horse’s flank with his hand, his palm came away bloody with engorged insects.

That was one blessing—it was too cold for mosquitoes now. Gone, too, was the lushness of summer, the thick green of cottonwood boughs, the broad leaves of cow parsnip, the flare of fireweed. Bare of foliage, the snowy benches and ravines rose to the mountains like a weather-bleached backbone. Jack watched through the naked trees and saw no sign of life. No moose, no squirrels, not a single songbird. A mangy raven passed overhead, but it flew steadily on as if seeking richer grounds.

When Jack told his brothers he was moving to Alaska, they envied him. God’s country, they’d said. The land of milk and honey. Moose, caribou, and bears—game so thick you won’t know what to shoot first. And the streams so full of salmon, you can walk across their backs to the other side.

What a different truth he found. Alaska gave up nothing easily. It was lean and wild and indifferent to a man’s struggle, and he had seen it in the eyes of that red fox.

 

Jack came to a log and made a halfhearted attempt to brush the snow away before sitting on it. He laid the rifle across his knees, took off his wool hat, and ran his fingers through his hair. For some time he sat bent over, his elbows on the rifle, head in his hands. Doubt crouched over his shoulder, ready to take him by the throat, whispering in his ear, You are an old man. An old, old man.

If he were to fall dead in these woods, nothing would rush to his aid. The north wind would blow down from the glacier, the ground would stay frozen, and a red fox like the one he had looked in the eye might be the first to sniff at his dead body and take a nibble here and there. The ravens and magpies would come to tear away at his frozen flesh, maybe a pack of wolves would eventually find its way to his carcass, and soon he’d be nothing but a strewn pile of bones. His only hope would be Mabel, but then he thought of her struggling under his dead weight. He stood and shouldered his rifle.

He had only cried a few times in his adult life—when his mother died, and when he and Mabel lost that little baby. He wouldn’t let himself now. He put one foot in front of the other and walked without seeing or feeling.

 

It was the quiet that pulled him out of his gloom. A quiet full of presence. He brought his head up.

It was the child. She was before him, just a few yards away. She stood atop the snow, arms at her sides, the hint of a smile at her pale lips. White fur trimmed her coat and leather boots. Her face was framed by the velvety brown of a sable hat, and she wore Mabel’s red scarf and mittens. The child was dusted
in crystals of ice, as if she had just walked through a snowstorm or spent a brilliantly cold night outdoors.

Jack would have spoken to her, but her eyes—the broken blue of river ice, glacial crevasses, moonlight—held him. She blinked, her blond lashes glittering with frost, and darted away.

“Wait!” he called out. He stumbled after her. “Wait! Don’t be afraid!”

He was clumsy, tripping over his own boots and kicking up snow. She sprinted ahead, but stopped often to look back at him.

“Please,” he called again. “Wait!”

A sound came to Jack’s ears like wind stirring dried leaves or snow blowing across ice, or maybe a whisper from far away.
Shhhhh.

He did not call out again. He ducked beneath tree branches and waded through the snow as the girl led him farther and farther into the forest. He had to watch his feet to keep from tripping, but each time he looked up, she was waiting.

And then she wasn’t. He stopped, squinted, and scanned the snow for her tracks. He saw no sign. Once again he became aware of the quiet, the strange calm of the forest.

From behind him came a high, chirpy whistle like a chickadee’s call, and he turned, expecting to see a bird, or maybe the child. Instead, a bull moose stood not fifty yards away. It raised its head slowly, as if the massive, many-pointed antlers were a ponderous burden. Snow sprinkled its long nose and brown hackles. It swayed its antlers slowly side to side. Never had Jack seen such a magnificent animal. On lanky legs, it must have stood more than seven feet at the withers, and its neck was as stout as a tree trunk.

In his wonder, Jack nearly overlooked the obvious—this was his quarry. He had hunted only a few times as a boy, mostly
rabbits and pheasants, although he had a vague memory of deer hunting with his cousins one cold, wet morning. This was different, though. This wasn’t sport or boyhood adventure. This was livelihood, and yet he was so ill prepared. He couldn’t remember much of that deer hunt, but he knew he had never taken a shot.

He expected the animal to spook as he chambered a cartridge in the rifle, but it was only mildly interested and went back to eating the tips of willow branches.

Jack rested his cheek against the wooden stock and tried to steady his grip. His exhalations rose as steam in the cold air and clouded his vision, so he held his breath, aimed for the moose’s heart, and pulled the trigger. He never heard the explosion or registered the rifle’s recoil. There was only the moment of impact, the animal staggering as if a great weight had come crashing down upon it, and then its fall.

He lowered the rifle to his side and took a few steps toward the moose. It kicked its legs and twisted its neck at a miserable angle. He chambered another round. The moose flailed in the snow, and for a second Jack looked into its rolling, wild eyes. He raised the rifle and shot a bullet into the animal’s skull. It did not move again.

BOOK: The Snow Child: A Novel
9.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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