Snow (latest draft)

July 22, 2009 at 10:07 pm (Skrifa)


From behind the brittle windowpane, the line between the sky and snow looks like the first washed-out brush stroke in a landscape study and somewhat like an overexposed photograph of sand dunes. The snow and sky feel like water running over a slate rock. It’s a glassy, cold, wet place.

I step into the snow, and the quiet. I am on a gentle slope. There is no wind. Caged tapwater doesn’t smell of anything, but this place is made with wild water, and it smells like the essence of a dead leaf or a clump of dirt. My first footprint seems small compared with the empty space in front. Hardened, twisted spindles divide up a small part of the sky, close to the horizon, there – a black wood, a frozen cobweb of trees. Far away.

My footsteps do not break but enhance the quiet. When I step down I hear the snow compacting under my foot. There is no sharp snap nor any brisk crunch. Only gentle grinding, stop, lift, the soft sound of my boot touching the top of the new snow, grind, stop. Under the pressure of my foot the snow begins to melt, to clear; the bottom of the snow begins to muddy with the dirt under it. When I put the tip of my nose next to my footprint, the wounded snow smells strongly of earth.

To smell the ground I must use my hands as support, splaying my fingers. They feel like icy bicycle spokes. The ground feels hard and wet. The top snow clings to my fingers like beggars or children. I brush it away as I stand; it dissolves on my skin.

The snow is falling. If it happens to drop on me, it touches me like eyelashes. If it happens to touch warmth, it stays, exchanging warmth for cold. It falls like eiderdown or shredded cotton. At the centre of the clusters are the tiny seeds of white ice that make it attach to itself, the bottom of my shoes, to everything, save the trees in the black wood.

It does not stay to rest on the trees in the black wood.

I put one foot directly in front of the other. I want to walk softly. The slope becomes more gentle. I can see the top.

My breath hits the inside of my scarf and comes back to me, wet and cold. My eyes are warm and bright. I am a small solid warm thing in a world of soft cold, and my eyes are the only window to the outside, because although my hands are bare, my wrists are wrapped tight. I can feel draughts of cold air pass by my eyes and creep into the crannies of my neck.

I stop, look to one side of the slope, then the other. There is nothing. Close to me, the snow down falls in separate feathers and at different times, but it comes together in a curtain farther away, to hide the slope and beyond it, so that the sky and the snow merge, so that the brush-stroke horizon is gradually erased. The snow goes on forever, up into the sky; the sky bows down to meet the snow, so that I am standing on sky and am breathing in snow.

I hesitate to turn around, but it is exactly the same behind me: my footprints fade into the dove grey of the world and of the falling snow. There is only the jagged crack of branches ahead of me, above the top of the horizon.

I reach the crest of the slope. Now I can see the trunks of the trees. I put my hands in my pockets to warm them. I bury my fingers in the skein of woollen yarn I have in my right pocket. It isn’t warm as it should be – it has been kept close to my skin – but scratchy and cold. I stop here, just as the slope becomes completely level, turn around, look down the hill where my footsteps are being filled with snow and gathered up into the land.

I unwind a long piece of the yarn, wind it up into a separate ball, and tie a small knot. This goes over the edge of the hill, far, farther away because I am at the top, and because I play out yarn with both of my hands as my woollen plumb pulls out more line, until it comes to rest just between the snow and the sky. It looks like it’s floating between them, a deep red buoy in a pale, bloodless sea. I put the skein of wool back in my pocket. It will not run out.

There is no sun, only sky that glows dully white behind a patina of snow. The landscape sleeps. It is cold and fresh, and it does not breathe. There is still no wind, no breeze.

I turn to my left, and there is a wall of stones, mostly gone, mostly collapsed. I can sit. As I reach the wall, I see a few stones that must have belonged to it long ago, separate from the rest. They do not belong to the plain, which is unvarying and flat. They are too far from the wall. They cannot have fallen or rolled to where they rest. There is no reason for anyone to have put them there. There is no reason for them to hang back.

I mark my initials on the largest one with my fingertip. I draw a circle around it, on the ground. I stand, watch my marks begin to fill. I walk to the wall, and brush away the snow, where I sit. I pull my boots close to me and remove snow from them. Water has not yet seeped into them. I pull at the long pieces of wool hanging at either side of my neck, to cover the bottoms of my ears with the flaps of my knitted hat. I tug at the bottoms of my hair, plaited in two long strips. The snow gleams in them like stars. I tuck my heels in and rest my chin on my stockings. I let my arms encircle my ankles. I wedge the fingers of my left hand behind my right heel, and the fingers of my right hand behind my left heel. I breathe.

I look towards the tree at the edge of the wood, where the raven looks back at me.

The wall, which should break the landscape, is deeply part of it, rising out of the snow instead of slashing into it. Those rocks still in the wall or in piles that are sheltered from the snow reach out to it – catching only an edge, or a space of white. From above, the wall must only be a faint outlines in the unbroken plain. These ruins are not a good resting place, but I sit here and watch the snow fall.

It must have marked the edge of the forest, once. Here the trees are far, but there is another piece of broken wall up ahead, under the black tree where the raven is sitting, watching me. Watching my line of red yarn that cuts the plain. Farther, and sections of wall meet the trees.

I unfold myself and put one foot down in the snow, and then the other. I look at the raven. He looks back at me. I can feel the cold from the stones in the wall against the back of my legs, through the stockings, even though they are thick. I can feel the hardness of the stones in the wall against the back of my legs, through my skirt, though it is thick. I take the skein of yarn out of my right pocket, in both hands, and I walk to the rock where my initials are long faded in the snow, and I loop the yarn around the base of the rock, still looking at the raven, now walking to him, the red yarn pulling tight against the rough stone.

The tree is not as black as I approach it. The raven is sitting in one of the higher branches. This tree is somewhat apart, but it is still a part of the wood. There is a root growing through the section of wall next to the trunk, joining the tree and the wall, the wall and the black woods. The entire wall was once a part of the black woods.

I walk under the raven’s tree, passing the skein of yarn under a root that juts sharply into the sky, streaking the outer yarn with black dirt. The snow thins under the trunk of the tree but never breaks. I put the yarn back into my pocket. I run my fingers over the tree. Its bark is knotted and hard, as though it has turned to stone. It chills my fingers.

I can feel the raven looking at my back as I walk away to my right, towards the wood, the branches no longer cobwebs but fingers combing the sky.

There is an old wooden gate, as high as my waist, no longer surrounded by wall, marking the edge of the black trees. It has become an obstacle rather than a way to ease the journey. I could walk around it, but I hunch my back slightly and stand on my toes to reach the dark metal latch on the far side. The old, grey wood is heavy and smooth. It swings open heavily, silently, and I shut it behind me.

I look back, out into the plain, at the tree with the raven, his head twisted around to face me, at my line of yarn disappearing to the right, anchored by the rock that is no longer visible to me in the softly falling snow. My footsteps crunch as I turn, on frozen, dead leaves, on patches of ice as thin as paper. The trees in the wood provide some cover from the snow.

The wood is not dense – there are still spaces of white, but as I walk, the trees come closer together. Here there is sometimes bare ground – crumbling wet, black dirt – puddles of partially frozen water dusted with patches of snow, bushes coated in frost, their bright berries draped in ice. Here there is a path. Here, the land is frozen in movement: up, down, banks and mounds and meadows. There are drifts of leaves and branches, fragile ice hanging from them, enclosing them in a delicate net, broken with a careless gesture, a single step.

The path is not straight. It takes advantage of the land, choosing the quickest, easiest way. The plain is gone; there are only trees, my yarn weaving in and around them, catching on the roughness of their skin, suspended by twigs and branches, but the trees provide only an illusion of enclosed space. I am still surrounded by dove grey, and snow, and the light of the sky.

The path tips down, into a tight cluster of trees, where there is a small stream, and a wooden bridge, not even long enough for a person to lie across it, narrow enough for me to put my thumbs, facing down, on each railing, my fingers folded over the other side, and to press my palms hard against the edge of the railing, and so lift my feet from the planks of the bridge, briefly, like I’m floating over the water. I bring my ankles up and turn my face to the sky, thrusting my shoulders back in their sockets, my eyes closed, my fingertips tight against the wood. The yarn hangs from my pocket like a fishing line.

When I fall, the flat slap of my feet echoes through the wood. It is not so quiet here; the water drops from leaf to leaf, trickles under the bridge, around the plates of ice that cover and surround it. Some of them are like windowpanes, showing me the brown and black stream bed underneath, the rocks and the water and the earth. I lean with my elbows in my stomach and my hands clasped and my wrists on the edge of the wooden railing, standing on my toes, looking through these windows. This stream is the artery of the landscape. It smells strongly of wild water here.

As I leave the bridge I trail the fingers of my left hand over the wood, glancing back at the spokes of the railing where I have woven my red yarn in and out, out and around, in and through, tying knots, making loops. The dropping water sounds like ice bells whispering.

The woods begin to clear; there is space between the trees; the path widens suddenly and there is a clearing, the path only marked by a dip in the snow.

And there is a little house, only two or three rooms, with dark windows and no smoke coming from the stone chimney. An axe is embedded in a tree stump in front and to the right of me. The house does not quite face me. It turns away, towards the trees, showing me its left shoulder like a frightened child, where the stump and the axe lie abandoned. The path curves around to the front door. There is a space behind the house, before the wood begins, hidden from view. I can hear my breath, close, in my ears.

I ignore the path and walk to the back of the house, passing closer to the axe, which has a blue rubber handle. It should not have been left in the snow. It gleams dully. I wipe the palm of my hand through the snow. The tree stump is old, covered with deep black cuts and scars.

My footprints again mark out my path, and no other’s. My footsteps do not make any noise now, apart from perhaps a murmur or a sigh; the only thing I can hear is my breath, gasping in my ears like wind. Behind the closest corner of the house, an empty chicken coop lies abandoned, the floor partially covered in snow. A brown leaf skitters through the black, cold opening of the hutch at the back. The chicken coop does not smell of anything, not birds, not straw, not rotten vegetables or grain. It is only another silent landmark. I pass it.

Near to the chicken coop and across half-moon humped red brick markers, dipped in snow like iced cookies, lilting to one side and the other so that five half-moons are lounging on their backs while five others examine the ground, lies a garden shed, shut up tight and locked with a padlock, which is striped in blue. The only noise in what seems like hours is made by my left foot stepping over the three-inch high wall of brick half-moons. The shed has a grey tiled roof, and has not been unlocked for a long time. It is painted what was once a deep green. It has two small windows, chicken wire embedded in the dirty glass. It must be filled with chopped wood. I turn away from it.

Farthest away lies a stone well, capped tightly with a thick wooden lid painted to match the garden shed. Just behind it, the clearing ends, and the line of trees is thick.

I walk to the well, looking at the trees, playing out my yarn behind me. It does not have a frame or a bucket. There must be some machinery to pump the water to the house. The cap looks like it hasn’t been moved for a very long time, and as I approach it, I can see that it is lined with metal. I trace a line in the snow there with my finger, a sweeping curve.

Behind the well is the body of a woman. Her head turns to face the stones. Her skin is white, deep red and purple and black where it touches the ground. Her eyes stare at me, rolled up in their sockets; her mouth is open. She has black marks around her neck. Her arms are behind her, and her palms face the sky. She is blanketed with snow. Her hands are filled with snow. As I step over her, my yarn trails on her cheek.

Tied onto the closest tree is a tyre swing. It is cold and filled with snow but I manage to fit both of my legs through. The rope is green and brown but it will not break. The land slopes down behind the tree. I wipe the snow from the top of the tyre and rest my face on the rough, hard rubber as I push against the ground, my pink fingers covering my eyes, letting my stomach move up, down, with the motion of the swinging, letting the world spin with my confused inner ear. My feet swing over the well. I’m leaping over the woman’s back. As I swing toward the wood the ground pulls away from my feet, farther and farther. The yarn from my pocket whips at the snow, making snail trails. I look up at the sky.

When I pull my boots out of the tyre, one catches, and I stumble. I feel the woman looking at me, laughing at me. My head jerks around, but she’s still facing the stones, the snow on her shoulders undisturbed.

On the other side of the well is the remains of a vegetable garden, understandably neglected in the cold, only small white stakes to mark what once grew, “Carrots,” “Sugar Snap Peas,” “Pumpkins,” “Parsley,” “Basil”, “Tomatoes,” “Turnips,” “Chad”. There are a few cabbages left, behind a sign that says, “Savoy,” their nested cups filled with snow. They look like lips, drinking.

The back door is not latched, and swings open when I touch it. The porch is bare, although there is a plant hanger, empty, to the left. There’s a coat rack just inside the door, a few coats hanging there, and a small pile of shoes underneath. I do not remove my coat, but I shut and latch the door. My yarn is shut into the doorframe, but I do not remove the skein from my pocket. I do not wipe my shoes on the mat, do not leave my boots in the tiny green and grey slate mud room, but track snow into the hallway, onto the expensive cream carpeting.

The house is dark, and cold. A window in the bedroom is open; snow has drifted up against the wall and the bed. I take a quilt and a blanket from the cedar linen chest at the foot of the bed. I have to dig its right side out of the snow to open it.

There is a wing-backed armchair of rich brown wood in the sitting room, upholstered in dark green fabric with small white flowers. It faces a window at the front of the house. I curl up into it, first putting down a corner of the quilt, wrapping myself, my clothes, my coat, my boots, the dirt, the dead leaves, the snow, the yarn in my pocket, up tight in the quilt and the blanket. I snag a bit of the top edge with my fingers, curling them under, and put my knuckles under my chin, shrugging the rest over my shoulders, between my back and the chair, sealing warmth in. There is a fireplace in the wall, smelling of ash. Cold breaths of air come from its mouth, charred and black, empty of wood.

I fall asleep. I do not dream.

When I wake, the light is unchanged: pallid, monochrome. I am warm, but I unwrap myself from the blankets and walk back to the bedroom, opening the door, which I’d closed. A red line of yarn goes into the bedroom and comes out again. I free it by opening the door. I choose a book from the bookcase and leave, shutting the door.

I take the book back to the chair, and drape the blankets around me, loosely this time. I try to read. My fingers are warmer; they can turn the pages deftly, without fumbling. The paper is dry and cool, yellowed at the edges, not delicate but old and cheap. It smells of dust, of libraries. The book is a trashy romance novel and so was written to grab attention but I’ve read it before and so it holds no interest for me. I’ve read them all before. All she has is trashy romance novels. After twenty pages and ten minutes, I put it aside.

I stand up, dropping the blankets. I walk to the window and press my fingertips up against the pane. They leave prints, which disappear, eaten up by the condensation on the glass, no trace of my mark there. I breathe into the glass. The evidence disappears. I was not here. I fold my arms, look out of the window at the snow and just visible, the black trees. I go to the door.

It opens silently. There are no footprints, only the gentle upward slope and the virgin snow and the thin fingers of the trees reaching into the sky, just above the horizon, far away, there – in the black wood. I finger the end of the skein of red yarn in my pocket, brushing it against my thumb so that it frays into a tassel of soft wool. It’s snowing, in great big clumps that drift and sway, like feathers or shredded cotton. It’s always snowing here.

I step into the snow, and the quiet.


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