“Wife, let us go into the yard behind and make a little snow girl; and perhaps she will come alive, and be a little daughter to us.”
“Husband,” says the old woman, “there’s no knowing what may be. Let us go into the yard and make a little snow girl.”
—Little Daughter of the Snow by Arthur Ransome
Wolverine River, Alaska, 1920
Mabel had known there would be silence. That was the point, after all. No infants cooing or wailing. No neighbor children playfully hollering down the lane. No pad of small feet on wooden stairs worn smooth by generations, or clackety-clack of toys along the kitchen floor. All those sounds of her failure and regret would be left behind, and in their place there would be silence.
She had imagined that in the Alaska wilderness silence would be peaceful, like snow falling at night, air filled with promise but no sound, but that was not what she found. Instead, when she swept the plank floor, the broom bristles scritched like some sharp-toothed shrew nibbling at her heart. When she washed the dishes, plates and bowls clattered as if they were breaking to pieces. The only sound not of her making was a sudden “caw, cawww” from outside. Mabel wrung dishwater from a rag and looked out the kitchen window in time to see a raven flapping its way from one leafless birch tree to another. No children chasing each other through autumn leaves, calling each other’s names. Not even a solitary child on a swing.
There had been the one. A tiny thing, born still and silent. Ten years past, but even now she found herself returning to the birth to touch Jack’s arm, stop him, reach out. She should have. She should have cupped the baby’s head in the palm of her hand and snipped a few of its tiny hairs to keep in a locket at her throat. She should have looked into its small face and known if it was a boy or a girl, and then stood beside Jack as he buried it in the Pennsylvania winter ground. She should have marked its grave. She should have allowed herself that grief.
It was a child, after all, although it looked more like a fairy changeling. Pinched face, tiny jaw, ears that came to narrow points; that much she had seen and wept over because she knew she could have loved it still.
Mabel was too long at the window. The raven had since flown away above the treetops. The sun had slipped behind a mountain, and the light had fallen flat. The branches were bare, the grass yellowed gray. Not a single snowflake. It was as if everything fine and glittering had been ground from the world and swept away as dust.
November was here, and it frightened her because she knew what it brought—cold upon the valley like a coming death, glacial wind through the cracks between the cabin logs. But most of all, darkness. Darkness so complete even the pale-lit hours would be choked.
She entered last winter blind, not knowing what to expect in this new, hard land. Now she knew. By December, the sun would rise just before noon and skirt the mountaintops for a few hours of twilight before sinking again. Mabel would move in and out of sleep as she sat in a chair beside the woodstove. She would not pick up any of her favorite books; the pages would be lifeless. She would not draw; what would there be to capture in her sketchbook? Dull skies, shadowy corners. It would become harder and harder to leave the warm bed each morning. She would stumble about in a walking sleep, scrape together meals and drape wet laundry around the cabin. Jack would struggle to keep the animals alive. The days would run together, winter’s stranglehold tightening.
All her life she had believed in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses. It was the flutter of moth wings on glass and the promise of river nymphs in the dappled creek beds. It was the smell of oak trees on the summer evening she fell in love, and the way dawn threw itself across the cow pond and turned the water to light.
Mabel could not remember the last time she caught such a flicker.
She gathered Jack’s work shirts and sat down to mend. She tried not to look out the window. If only it would snow. Maybe that white would soften the bleak lines. Perhaps it could catch some bit of light and mirror it back into her eyes.
But all afternoon the clouds remained high and thin, the wind ripped dead leaves from the tree branches, and daylight guttered like a candle. Mabel thought of the terrible cold that would trap her alone in the cabin, and her breathing turned shallow and rapid. She stood to pace the floor. She silently repeated to herself, “I cannot do this. I cannot do this.”
There were guns in the house, and she had thought of them before. The hunting rifle beside the bookshelf, the shotgun over the doorway, and a revolver that Jack kept in the top drawer of the bureau. She had never fired them, but that wasn’t what kept her. It was the violence and unseemly gore of such an act, and the blame that would inevitably come in its wake. People would say she was weak in mind or spirit, or Jack was a poor husband. And what of Jack? What shame and anger would he harbor?
The river, though—that was something different. Not a soul to blame, not even her own. It would be an unfortunate misstep. People would say, if only she had known the ice wouldn’t hold her. If only she’d known its dangers.
Afternoon descended into dusk, and Mabel left the window to light an oil lamp on the table, as if she was going to prepare dinner and wait for Jack’s return, as if this day would end like any other, but in her mind she was already following the trail through the woods to the Wolverine River. The lamp burned as she laced her leather boots, put her winter coat on over her housedress, and stepped outside. Her hands and head were bare to the wind.
As she strode through the naked trees, she was both exhilarated and numb, chilled by the clarity of her purpose. She did not think of what she left behind, but only of this moment in a sort of black-and-white precision. The hard clunk of her boot soles on the frozen ground. The icy breeze in her hair. Her expansive breaths. She was strangely powerful and sure.
She emerged from the forest and stood on the bank of the frozen river. It was calm except for the occasional gust of wind that ruffled her skirt against her wool stockings and swirled silt across the ice. Farther upstream, the glacier-fed valley stretched half a mile wide with gravel bars, driftwood, and braided shallow channels, but here the river ran narrow and deep. Mabel could see the shale cliff on the far side that fell off into black ice. Below, the water would be well over her head.
The cliff became her destination, though she expected to drown before she reached it. The ice was only an inch or two thick, and even in the depths of winter no one would dare to cross at this treacherous point.
At first her boots caught on boulders, frozen in the sandy shore, but then she staggered down the steep bank and crossed a small rivulet where the ice was thin and brittle. She broke through every other step to hit dry sand beneath. Then she crossed a barren patch of gravel and hiked up her skirt to climb over a driftwood log, faded by the elements.
When she reached the river’s main channel, where water still coursed down the valley, the ice was no longer brittle and white but instead black and pliant, as if it had only solidified the night before. She slid her boot soles onto the surface and nearly laughed at her own absurdity—to be careful not to slip even as she prayed to fall through.
She was several feet from safe ground when she allowed herself to stop and peer down between her boots. It was like walking on glass. She could see granite rocks beneath the moving, dark turquoise water. A yellow leaf floated by, and she imagined herself swept alongside it and briefly looking up through the remarkably clear ice. Before the water filled her lungs, would she be able to see the sky?
Here and there, bubbles as large as her hand were frozen in white circles, and in other places large cracks ran through. She wondered if the ice was weaker at those points, and if she should seek them out or avoid them. She set her shoulders, faced straight ahead, and walked without looking down.
When she crossed the heart of the channel, the cliff face was almost within arm’s length, the water was a muffled roar, and the ice gave slightly beneath her. Against her will, she glanced down, and what she saw terrified her. No bubbles. No cracks. Only bottomless black, as if the night sky were under her boots. She shifted her weight to take another step toward the cliff, and there was a crack, a deep, resonant pop like a massive Champagne bottle being uncorked. Mabel spread her feet wide and her knees trembled. She waited for the ice to give way, for her body to plunge into the river. Then there was another thud, a whoompf, and she was certain the ice slumped beneath her boots, but in millimeters, nearly imperceptible except for the awful sound.
She waited and breathed, and the water didn’t come. The ice bore her. She slid her feet slowly, first one, then the other, again and again, a slow shuffle until she stood where ice met cliff. Never had she imagined she would be here, on the far side of the river. She put her bare palms to the cold shale, then the entire length of her body, until her forehead was pressed to it and she could smell the stone, ancient and damp.
Its cold began to seep into her, so she lowered her arms to her sides, turned from the cliff face, and began the journey back the way she had come. Her heart thudded in her throat. Her legs were unsteady. She wondered if now, as she made her way home, she would break through to her death.
As she neared solid ground, she wanted to run to it, but the ice was too slick beneath her boots, so she slid as if ice-skating and then stumbled up the bank. She gasped and coughed and nearly laughed, as if it had all been a lark, a mad dare. Then she bent with her hands on her thighs and tried to steady herself.
When she slowly straightened, the land was vast before her. The sun was setting down the river, casting a cold pink hue along the white-capped mountains that framed both sides of the valley. Upriver, the willow shrubs and gravel bars, the spruce forests and low-lying poplar stands, swelled to the mountains in a steely blue. No fields or fences, homes or roads; not a single living soul as far as she could see in any direction. Only wilderness.
It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all. She turned her back to the river and walked home.
The lantern was still burning; the kitchen window glowed as she approached the cabin, and when she opened the door and stepped inside, warmth and flickering light overcame her. Everything was unfamiliar and golden. She had not expected to return here.
It seemed she was gone hours, but it was not yet six in the evening, and Jack hadn’t come in. She took off her coat and went to the woodstove, letting the heat sink painfully into her hands and feet. Once she could open and close her fingers, she took out pots and pans, marveling that she was fulfilling such a mundane task. She added wood to the stove, cooked dinner, and then sat straight-backed at the rough-hewn table with her hands folded in her lap. A few minutes later, Jack came through the door, stomped his boots, and dusted straw from his wool coat.
Certain he would somehow know what she had survived, she watched and waited. He rinsed his hands in the basin, sat across from her, and lowered his head.
“Bless this food, Lord,” he mumbled. “Amen.”
She set a potato on each of their plates beside boiled carrots and red beans. Neither of them spoke. There was only the scraping of knives and forks against plates. She tried to eat, but could not force herself. Words lay like granite boulders in her lap and when at last she spoke, each one was heavy and burdensome and all she could manage.
“I went to the river today,” she said.
He did not lift his head. She waited for him to ask why she would do such a thing. Maybe then she could tell him.
Jack jabbed at the carrots with his fork, then swabbed the beans with a slice of bread. He gave no indication he had heard her.
“It’s frozen all the way across to the cliffs,” she said in a near whisper. Her eyes down, her breath shallow, she waited, but there was only Jack’s chewing, his fork at his plate.
Mabel looked up and saw his windburned hands and frayed cuffs, the crow’s feet that spread at the corners of his downturned eyes. She couldn’t remember the last time she had touched that skin, and the thought ached like loneliness in her chest. Then she spotted a few strands of silver in his reddish-brown beard. When had they appeared? So he, too, was graying. Each of them fading away without the other’s notice.
She pushed food here and there with her fork. She glanced at the lantern hanging from the ceiling and saw shards of light stream from it. She was crying. For a moment she sat and let the tears run down either side of her nose until they were at the corners of her mouth. Jack continued to eat, his head down. She stood and took her plate of food to the small kitchen counter. Turned away, she wiped her face with her apron.
“That ice isn’t solid yet,” Jack said from the table. “Best to stay off of it.”
Mabel swallowed, cleared her throat.
“Yes. Of course,” she said.
She busied herself at the counter until her eyes were clear, then returned to the table and spooned more carrots onto Jack’s plate.
“How is the new field?” she asked.
“It’s coming.” He forked potato into his mouth, then wiped it with the back of his hand.
“I’ll get the rest of the trees cut and skidded in the next few days,” he said. “Then I’ll burn some more of the stumps out.”
“Would you like me to come and help? I could tend the stump fires for you.”
“No, I’ll manage.”
That night in bed, she had a heightened awareness of him, of the scent of straw and spruce boughs in his hair and beard, the weight of him on the creaky bed, the sound of his slow, tired breaths. He lay on his side, turned away from her. She reached out, thinking to touch his shoulder, but instead lowered her arm and lay in the darkness staring at his back.
“Do you think we’ll make it through winter?” she asked.
He didn’t answer. Perhaps he was asleep. She rolled away and faced the log wall.
When he spoke, Mabel wondered if it was grogginess or emotion that made his voice gravelly.
“We don’t have much choice, do we?”
The morning was so cold that when Jack first stepped outside and harnessed the horse, his leather boots stayed stiff and his hands wouldn’t work right. A north wind blew steadily off the river. He’d have liked to stay indoors, but he had already stacked Mabel’s towel-wrapped pies in a crate to take to town. He slapped himself on the arms and stomped his feet to get the blood flowing. It was damned cold, and even long underwear beneath denim seemed a scant cotton sheet about his legs. It wasn’t easy, leaving the comfort of the woodstove to face this alone. The sun threatened to come up on the other side of the river, but its light was weak and silvery, and not much comfort at all.
Jack climbed up into the open wagon and shook the reins. He did not look back over his shoulder, but he felt the cabin dwindle into the spruce trees behind him.
As the trail passed through a field, the horse seemed to trip on its own feet, and then it tossed its head. Jack slowed the wagon to a stop and scanned the field and distant trees, but saw nothing.
Goddamned horse. He’d wanted a nice mellow draft, something slow and strong. But horses were scarcer than hen’s teeth up here, and he didn’t have much to choose from—a swaybacked old mare that looked to be on her last legs and this one, young and barely broken, better suited to prancing around a ring than working for a living. Jack was afraid it would be the death of him.
Just the other day he’d been skidding logs out of the new field when the horse spooked at a branch and knocked Jack to the ground. He barely missed being crushed by the log as the horse charged ahead. His forearms and shins were still tore up, and his back pained him every morning.
And there lay the real problem. Not the nervous horse, but the tired old man. The truth squirmed in the pit of his stomach like a thing done wrong. This was too much work for a man of his age. He wasn’t making headway, even working every day as long and hard as he could. After a long summer and snowless autumn, he was still nowhere near done clearing enough land to earn a living. He got a pitiful little potato harvest off one small field this year, and it scarcely did more than buy flour for the winter. He figured he had enough money left from selling his share in the farm Back East to last them one more year, but only if Mabel kept selling pies in town.
That wasn’t right either, Mabel scrubbing her own rough-cut floors and selling baked goods on the side. How different her life could have been. The daughter of a literature professor, a family of privilege, she could have studied her books and art and spent her afternoons consorting with other fine women. Servants and china teacups and petit fours baked by someone else.
As he rode through the end of a half-cleared field, the horse jerked again, tossed its head and snorted. Jack pulled back on the reins. He squinted and studied the fallen trees around him and beyond them the standing birches, spruce, and cottonwoods. The woods were silent, not even the twitter of a bird. The horse stamped a hoof on the hard ground and then was still. Jack tried to quiet his breathing so he could see and hear.
Something was watching him.
It was a foolish thought. Who would be out here? He wondered not for the first time if wild animals could give that feeling. Dumb beasts, like cows and chickens, could stare at a man’s back all day and not give a prickle on his neck. But maybe woodland creatures were different. He tried to picture a bear shuffling through the forest, pacing back and forth and eyeing him and the horse. Didn’t seem likely, getting this close to winter. They should be looking to den up.
His eyes caught now and then on a stump or a shadowy spot among the trees. Shrug it off, old man, he told himself. You’ll drive yourself crazy looking for something that’s not there.
He went to shake the reins, but then peered one last time over his shoulder and saw it—a flash of movement, a smudge of brownish red. The horse snorted. Jack turned slowly in the wagon seat.
A red fox darted among the fallen trees. It disappeared for a minute but popped up again, closer to the forest, running with its fluffy tail held low to the ground. It stopped and turned its head. For a moment its eyes locked with Jack’s, and there, in its narrowing golden irises, he saw the savagery of the place. Like he was staring wilderness itself straight in the eye.
He faced forward in the wagon, shook the reins, and let the horse gather to a trot, both of them eager to put the fox behind them. For the next hour, he rode hunched and cold as the wagon bumped along through miles of untouched forest. As he neared town, the horse picked up its pace, and Jack had to slow it to keep the crate from spilling out of the wagon.
Back home, Alpine wouldn’t have been called a town at all. It was nothing more than a few dusty, false-fronted buildings perched between the train tracks and the Wolverine River. Nearby, several homesteaders had stripped the land clear of trees before abandoning it. Some went off to pan gold or work for the railroad, but most had hightailed it home with no plans of ever returning to Alaska.
Jack carried the crate of pies up the steps to the hotel restaurant, where the owner’s wife opened the door for him. Well into her sixties, Betty wore her hair short and mannish and ran the place like a one-woman show. Her husband, Roy, worked for the territorial government and was rarely about.
“Good morning, Betty,” Jack said.
“It’s ugly as far as I can see.” She slammed the door behind them. “Colder than hell, and no sign of snow. Never seen anything like it. Got some of Mabel’s pies?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He set them on the counter and unwrapped them from the towels.
“That woman sure can bake,” she said. “Everybody’s always asking after them pies.”
“Glad to hear it.”
She counted a few bills from the till and put them on the counter beside the crate.
“So I know I’m risking losing a few customers, Jack, but I’m afraid we won’t be needing any more after today. My sister’s come to live with us, and Roy says she’s got to earn her keep by doing the baking.”
He picked up the bills and put them in his coat pocket as if he hadn’t heard what she’d said. Then it registered.
“No more pies? You sure?”
“Sorry, Jack. I know it’s poor timing, with winter coming on, but…” Her voice trailed off, and she seemed uncharacteristically embarrassed.
“We could cut the price, if that would help,” he said. “We need every penny we can get.”
“I am sorry. Can I get you a cup of coffee and some breakfast?”
“Coffee would be fine.” He chose a table by a small window that looked out over the river.
“It’s on the house,” she said as she set the cup in front of him.
He never stayed when he brought the pies into town, but this morning he wasn’t eager to get back to the homestead. What would he tell Mabel? That they had to pack up and go home with their tails between their legs? Give up, like all those before him? He stirred some sugar into the coffee and stared out the window. A man with scuffed leather boots and the dust-beaten air of a mountain camp walked along the river’s edge. He wore a bedroll on his backpack, led a shaggy husky by a rope tether and in his other hand carried a hunting rifle. Past him Jack could see a white haze shrouding the peaks. It was snowing in the mountains. Soon it would snow here in the valley, too.
“You know, they’re looking for help up at the mine.” Betty slid a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him. “You probably wouldn’t want to make it your profession, but it might get you all through a tight spot.”
“The coal mine up north?”
“Yep. Pay’s not bad, and they’ll be at it as long as they can keep the tracks clear. They feed you and bunk you, and send you home with a little extra money in your pocket. Just something to think about.”
“Thanks. And thanks for this.” He gestured toward the plate.
A godforsaken job, coal mining. Farmers were born to work in the light and air, not in tunnels through rock. Back home, he’d seen the men return from the mines with their faces black with coal dust and coughing up dirty blood. Even if he had the will and strength, it would mean leaving Mabel alone at the homestead for days, maybe weeks, at a time.
Cash money is what they needed, though. Just a month or two might be enough to pull them through next harvest. He could stand most anything for a month or two. He ate the last bite of bacon and was ready to head out when George Benson came noisily through the restaurant door.
“Betty, Betty, Betty. What have you got for me today? Any of those pies?”
“They’re fresh off the homestead, George. Have a seat and I’ll bring a slice over.”
George turned toward the tables and spotted Jack.
“Hello there, neighbor! I’ll tell you what—your wife bakes a mean apple pie.” He threw his coat over the back of a chair and patted his round belly. “Mind if I join you?”
“Not at all.”
George lived about ten miles the other side of town with his wife and three boys. Jack had met him a few times at the general store and here at the restaurant. He seemed a good-natured sort and always spoke as if they were confirmed friends. He and George were about the same age.
“How’s it coming out at your place?” George asked as he sat across from him.
“You got any help out there?”
“Nope. Just working away on it myself. Got one or two good fields cleared. Always more to do. You know how it goes.”
“We should swap a few days here and there—me and my boys come over to your place with our draft horses, and then you lend a hand our way.”
“That’s a generous offer.”
“We could help you get some work done,” George continued, “and your wife could come over and get some girl time with Esther, talk about baking or sewing or whatever it is they talk about. She gets tired of all us men. She’d be thrilled to have you all over.”
Jack didn’t say yes or no.
“Your kids all grown and gone?” George asked.
Jack hadn’t seen that coming. He and Mabel were that old, weren’t they, that their children could be grown and having families of their own. He wondered if he looked the way he felt, like someone had stuck out a foot and tripped him.
“Nope. Never had any.”
“What’s that? Never had any, you say?”
He watched George. If you said you didn’t have children, it sounded like a choice, and what kind of craziness would that be? If you said you couldn’t, the conversation turned awkward while they contemplated your manliness or your wife’s health. Jack waited and swallowed.
“That’s one way to go, I suppose.” George shook his head with a chuckle. “Heck of a lot more quiet around your place, I’ll bet. Sometimes those boys of mine like to drive me to drink. Hassling about this or that, dragging out of bed in the morning like the pox was on them. Getting a good day’s work out of the youngest one is about as easy as wrestling a hog.”
Jack laughed and eased, drank some of his coffee. “I had a brother like that. It was almost easier to just let him sleep.”
“Yep, that’s how some of them are, at least until they’ve got a place of their own and see what it’s all about.”
Betty came to the table with a cup and slice of pie for George.
“I was just telling Jack they’re looking for help up at the mine,” she said as she poured hot coffee. “You know, to get them through the winter.”
George raised his eyebrows, then frowned, but didn’t speak until Betty had gone back into the kitchen.
“You aren’t, are you?”
“Something to consider.”
“Christ. You lost your ever-loving mind? You and I—we’re no spring chickens, and those hell holes are for young men, if anybody at all.”
Jack nodded, uncomfortable with the conversation.
“I know it’s none of my damned business, but you seem like a good fellow,” George went on. “You know why they’re looking for men?”
“They’ve had trouble keeping crews on since the fires a few years back. Fourteen, dead as doornails. Some burned up so bad you couldn’t tell ’em apart. A half dozen they never found at all. I’m telling you, Jack, it’s not worth the pennies they’d pay you.”
“I hear you. I do, but… well, I’m backed up against a wall. I’m just not sure how to work it out.”
“You need to make it through until harvest? You got seed money for the spring?”
Jack gave a wry smile. “As long as we don’t eat between now and then.”
“You’ve got carrots and potatoes sacked away, haven’t you?”
“You get yourself a moose yet?”
Jack shook his head. “Never been much of a hunter.”
“Well, see here—that’s all you need to do. Hang some meat in the barn, and you and the wife will be set till spring. It won’t be cake and caviar, but you won’t starve.”
Jack looked into his empty coffee mug.
“That’s how it goes for a lot of us,” George said. “Those first years are lean. I’m telling you, you might get sick of moose and potatoes, but you’ll keep your neck safe.”
As if it were all settled, George finished off his piece of pie in a few huge bites, wiped his mouth with the napkin, and stood. He reached a hand down to Jack.
“Better get going. Esther will accuse me of pissing the day away if I don’t get on home.” His handshake was steady and friendly. “Don’t forget what I said, though. And when it comes to getting those fields cleared, we’d be glad to come over and help you out. Can make the day go faster to have company.”
Jack nodded. “I appreciate that.”
He sat alone at the table. Maybe it was a mistake isolating themselves the way they had, Mabel without a single woman friend to talk with. George’s wife could be a godsend, especially if he went north to work at the mine and Mabel was left alone at the homestead.
She would say otherwise. Hadn’t they left all that behind to start a new life with just the two of them? I need peace and quiet, she’d told him more than once. She had withered and shrunk in on herself, and it began when they lost that baby. She said she couldn’t bear to attend another family gathering with all the silly banter and gossip. But Jack remembered more. He remembered the pregnant women smiling as they stroked their bellies, and the newborn infants wailing as they were passed among the relatives. He remembered the little girl who had tugged at Mabel’s skirts and called her “Mama,” mistaking her for another woman, and Mabel looking as if she had been backhanded. He remembered, too, that he had failed her, had gone on talking with a group of men and pretended he hadn’t seen.
The Bensons’ oldest son was about to be married, and soon enough there would be a baby toddling about the house. He thought of Mabel, that small, sad smile and the wince at the inside corners of her eyes that should have made tears but never did.
He nodded at Betty as he picked up the empty crate and walked out to the wagon.
The leaden sky seemed to hold its breath. December grew near, and still there was no snow in the valley. For several days, the thermometers held at twenty-five below zero. When Mabel went out to feed the chickens, she was stunned by the cold. It cut through her skin and ached in her hip bones and knuckles. She watched a few dry snowflakes fall, but it was only a dusting, and the river wind swept it against exposed rocks and stumps in small, dirty drifts. It was difficult to discern the scant snow from the fine glacial silt, blown in gusts from the riverbed, that coated everything.
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.
“Betty told me to hold off on the pies.”
“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?”
“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.
“Go on up to the house,” she called out to them. “The boys’ll help you with the horse.”
In the cabin, Mabel sat alone at the cluttered kitchen table, while Jack disappeared outside with George and the younger son. With her hands in her lap, her back straight, she wondered where they would eat. The table was heaped with stacks of catalogs, rows of washed, empty jars, and bolts of fabric. The cabin smelled strongly of cabbage and sour wild cranberries. It wasn’t much bigger than Jack and Mabel’s, except it had a loft where she assumed the beds were. The cabin was catawampus in a dizzying way, with the floor dipping to one side and the corners not square. Rocks and bleached animal skulls and dried wildflowers lined the windowsills. Mabel didn’t move, yet she pried just by allowing her eyes to wander.
She jumped when the door banged open.
“Blasted bird. You’d think it’d know enough to just give up the ghost. But no, it’s got to raise hell when it doesn’t even have a head left on its body.”
“Oh. Oh dear. Can I do something to help?”
The woman stomped past the table without removing her dirty boots and threw the turkey onto the crowded counter. A lard tin fell with a clatter to the floor. Esther kicked at it and turned to Mabel, who stood flustered and slightly frightened. Esther grinned, stretched out a bloodstained hand.
“Mabel? Isn’t that it? Mabel?”
Mabel nodded and gave her hand over to Esther’s vigorous shake.
“Esther. But I suppose you already figured that out. Good to have you out here finally.”
Under her wool coat, Esther wore a flower-print shirt and men’s denim overalls. Her face was speckled with blood. She pulled off her wool hat and fuzzy stands of hair stood on end. She swung her braid over her back and began filling a large pot with water.
“You’d think with all these men around here I could find somebody to kill and pluck a turkey for me. But no such luck.”
“Are you sure there’s nothing I can do?” Perhaps Esther would apologize for her appearance or for the disarray in the house. Maybe there was some explanation, some reason.
“No. No. Just relax and make yourself at home. You could fix us some tea, if you’d like, while I get this damned bird in the oven.”
“Oh. Yes. Thank you.”
“You know what our youngest went and did? Here we raise a couple of turkeys for no other reason than to cook on occasions such as these, and he goes out and shoots a dozen ptarmigan yesterday. Let’s have these for Thanksgiving, he says. What do I need with a dozen dead ptarmigan on Thanksgiving? Why feed turkeys if you’re going to eat ptarmigan?”
She looked at Mabel, as if expecting an answer.
“I… I haven’t the faintest idea. I can’t say I’ve ever eaten ptarmigan before.”
“Well, it’s good enough. But Thanksgiving, it’s turkey as far as I’m concerned.”
“I brought pies. For dessert. I set them on that chair. I wasn’t sure where else to put them.”
“Perfect! I hadn’t had a chance to even think about sweets. George tells me Betty’s a fool to give up your pies. He raves about your baking. Not that he needs any of it. Have you seen the gut on that man?”
Again she looked to Mabel expectantly.
“Oh, I wouldn’t—”
Esther’s laugh was a loud, startling guffaw.
“I keep telling him he’s single-handedly supporting that hotel restaurant, and it’s starting to show,” she said.
It was as if Mabel had fallen through a hole into another world. It was nothing like her quiet, well-ordered world of darkness and light and sadness. This was an untidy place, but welcoming and full of laughter. George teased that the two women were “talking a blue streak” rather than cooking the meal, and it was well into the evening before dinner was served, but no one seemed to mind. The turkey was dry on the outside and half raw on the inside. They all had to pick and choose their cuts. The mashed potatoes were creamy and perfect. The gravy was lumpy. Esther made no apologies. They ate with plates balanced on their laps. No one said a blessing, but George held up his glass and said, “To neighbors. And to getting through another winter.” They all raised their glasses.
“And here’s to eating ptarmigan next year,” Esther said, and everyone laughed.
After dinner and pie, the Bensons began to tell stories of their time on the homestead, of how the snow once piled so deep the horses could walk over the fence whenever they pleased, of weather so cold the dishwater turned to ice in the air when you tossed it out.
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world, though,” Esther said. “What about you? You both come from farms down south?”
“No. Well, Jack’s family owns a farm along the Allegheny River, in Pennsylvania.”
“What do they raise back there?” George asked.
“Apples and hay, mostly,” Jack said.
“What about you?” Esther turned to Mabel.
“I suppose I’m the black sheep. No one else in my family would think of living on a farm, or moving to Alaska. My father was a literature professor at the University of Pennsylvania.”
“And you left all that to come here? What in God’s name were you thinking?” Esther shoved Mabel’s arm playfully. “He talked you into it, didn’t he? That’s how it often is. These men drag their poor women along, taking them to the Far North for adventure, when all they want is a hot bath and a housekeeper.”
“No. No. It’s not like that.” All eyes were on her, even Jack’s. She hesitated, but then went on. “I wanted to come here. Jack did, too, but when we did, it was at my urging. I don’t know why, precisely. I believe we were in need of a change. We needed to do things for ourselves. Does that make any sense? To break your own ground and know it’s yours, free and clear. Nothing taken for granted. Alaska seemed like the place for a fresh start.”
Esther grinned. “You didn’t fare too badly with this one, did you, Jack? Don’t let word get out. There aren’t many like her.”
Though she didn’t look up, Mabel knew Jack was watching her and that her cheeks were flushed. She so rarely spoke like this in mixed company. Maybe she had said too much.
Then, as the conversation began to turn around her, she wondered if she had told the truth. Was that why they had come north—to build a life? Or did fear drive her? Fear of the gray, not just in the strands of her hair and her wilting cheeks, but the gray that ran deeper, to the bone, so that she thought she might turn into a fine dust and simply sift away in the wind.
Mabel recalled the afternoon, less than two years ago. Sunny and brilliant. The smell of the orchard in the air. Jack was sitting on the porch swing of his parents’ house, his eyes shaded from the sun. It was a family picnic, but they were alone for the moment. She had reached into her dress pocket and pulled out the folded handbill—“June 1918. Alaska, Our Newest Homeland.”
They should go, she had said. Home? he asked.
No, she said, and held up the advertisement. North, she said.
The federal government was looking for farmers to homestead along the territory’s new train route. The Alaska Railroad and a steamship company offered discounted rates for those brave enough to make the journey.
She had tried to keep her tone even, to not let desperation break her voice. Jack was wary of her newfound enthusiasm. They were both nearing fifty years old. It was true that as a young man he had dreamed of going to Alaska, of testing himself in a place so wild and grand, but wasn’t it too late for all that?
Jack surely had such doubts, but he did not speak them. He sold his share in the land and business to his brothers. She packed the trunks with dishes and pans and as many books as they could hold. They traveled by train to the West Coast, then by steamship from Seattle to Seward, Alaska, and by train again to Alpine. Without warning or signs of civilization, the train would stop and a solitary man would disembark, shoulder his packs, and disappear into the spruce trees and creek valleys. She had reached out and put her hand on Jack’s arm, but he stared out the train window, his expression unreadable.
She had imagined the two of them working in green fields framed by mountains as tall and snowy as the Swiss Alps. The air would be clean and cold, the sky vast and blue. Side by side, sweaty and tired, they would smile at each other the way they had as young lovers. It would be a hard life, but it would be theirs alone. Here at the world’s edge, far from everything familiar and safe, they would build a new home in the wilderness and do it as partners, out from under the shadow of cultivated orchards and expectant generations.
But here they were, never together in the fields, speaking to each other less and less. The first summer he had her stay in town at the dingy hotel while he built the cabin and barn. Sitting on the edge of the narrow mattress that had certainly bedded more miners and trappers than Pennsylvania women, Mabel considered writing to her sister. She was alone. The ceaseless sun never gave her a moment’s rest. Everything before her—the lace curtains at the window, the clapboard siding, her own aging hands—was leached of color. When she left her hotel room, she found only a single muddy, deeply rutted trail beside the railroad tracks. It began in trees and ended in trees. No sidewalks. No cafes or bookshops. Just Betty, wearing her men’s shirts and work pants and issuing endless advice about how to jar sauerkraut and moose meat, how to take the itch out of mosquito bites with vinegar, how to ward off bears with a blow horn.
Mabel wanted to write to her sister but could not admit she had been wrong. Everyone had warned her the Territory of Alaska was for lost men and unsavory women, that there would be no place for her in the wilderness. She clutched the advertisement promising a new homeland and did not write any letters.
When at last Jack brought her to the homestead, she had wanted to believe. So this was Alaska—raw, austere. A cabin of freshly peeled logs cut from the land, a patch of dirt and stumps for a yard, mountains that serrated the sky. Each day she asked, Can I come with you to the fields? but he said no, you should stay. He returned in the evenings bent at the back and wounded with bruises and insect bites. She cooked and cleaned, and cooked and cleaned, and found herself further consumed by the gray, until even her vision was muted and the world around her drained of color.
Mabel smoothed her hands across her lap, chasing the wrinkles in the fabric again and again, until her ears caught a few of the words around her. Something about the mine north of town.
“I’m telling you, Jack. Don’t give it another thought,” George was saying. “That’s a quick way to leave this world.”
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.
The 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.
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?
Excerpted from The Snow Child by Ivey, Eowyn Copyright © 2012 by Ivey, Eowyn. Excerpted by permission.
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