Monday, December 05, 2011

A Winter's Tale

I wrote this story years and years ago. Then it was part of a novel that drifted away. It was published years ago in more or less the same form as you have it here. I posted it a year ago but I wanted to put it back up because I have a lot of affection for it. Except for my father not being killed in World War II, it's almost autobiographical. It's also almost biographical because my father's brother was seriously wounded in the War. Here it is. It's called...


The snow had started the day before. The sun was bright in a clear sky and it snowed! Each flake caught the sun. Sparkles swam in the air living along the wind. People passing on Cottage Street looked up to the clear air to let the cold colors hit them in the eye, or on the glasses. They smiled, admiring their shadows as they walked and the sunny, sunny snowstorm falling around them.
A genuine curiosity, Pop-pop called it.
Soon, though, the sky became gray and the snow continued into the dark. This was more like it. All that blew and rolled down streets, all the things that stood at corners, squatted in the back alley or at the bottom of the yard were, first, stopped, then pinned to the ground by the falling snow, then covered into smooth lumps.
It snowed all through supper and after. It snowed through the radio and Pop-pop's reading. It snowed even harder when I went to bed. All night, I'd wake and go to the window to wish for more; I pressed my face against the cold glass to peer at the sky above the eaves. I wanted there to be more snow in it. And there was. The sky was black but the air was lit by the streetlight at the end of the alley. Pieces of white day fell through the night and brushed little whiskers against the glass. I thought the wet chill would crack my cheek when I smiled.
In the morning the world was new. Yesterday's lumps were smooth and the spaces between them were even and white. In the yard, the snow had rolled in on waves of wind from over the far fence and dropped quietly and deeply. It filled the space from the back of the house to the alley, then buried the fence and the alley. Then it buried the Erby's fence across the way; then buried their yard, too. Then everything was all the same.
When the wind blew hard enough to make the electric pole by the corner sway and the wires clack and chatter their icy silver loads that had been building through the storm, Pop-pop looked up and down the alley. He shook his head. "We'd best stay in," he said. "All of us." Falling wires, he said. Careful, he said. Electrocution, he said.
Nanna looked into the pantry and shook her head. "The food'll never last," she said.
When the wind howled, the snow rose alive, spinning, and the world went white. So big a thing as Mount Amos disappeared. So too, did Aunt and Uncle Erby's house across the alley. Our yard began, now, at the back door and went on forever, around other houses and on forever. The world was just our place, just our house and the sweetly shaped mounds of snow stretching forever. A few black lines crossed above, or rose from it. A pole down the way. The very tips of the back fence, dead black morning glory vines still hanging in tatters from summer. Then nothing. The end of the world. Our place only.

I said once that by the time the telegram came, I already knew. Here's what happened.

It was in that snow. Mother and I were on the front porch. A trolley passed the house and rumbled slowly, slipping, wheels spinning uphill toward the end of town. A man came up the sidewalk. Through the snow I heard him whistling Rum and Coca-Cola. I laughed. Snow was blowing in front, behind, around him. It was climbing his legs and wrapping his face. It looked as if you could see right through him, as though pieces of him were being carved away by the wind. He looked alive inside with snow.
I laughed some more. He heard me laugh and looked up. He saw me on the porch with Mother. He looked at the door behind me then at the envelope in his hand. I laughed and he had seen us. Mother was tucking me, buttoning my face into the wool snow suit, already wet from the blowing snow. I laughed and she turned to see. She saw the man coming and stopped, her fingers stopped on the button at my mouth. I could smell cold, wet wool and my mother's warm skin, cold cream smooth and fragrant from morning's dishes.
The street was empty. The hill was white all the way to where it disappeared. Black sticks stuck out, here, there: Trees. A fence. Phone poles. The trolley tracks were black lines along the way, then they glazed over white, then vanished. The wind howled and for a minute the street faded into white, then vanished, too. The man disappeared with the rest of the world. The world was our porch and Mother frozen at my mouth and I thought, "Good. He's gone. Daddy'll be alright." Then the wind dropped its voice, and the man stepped onto our porch and shook his hat like a dog.
There was nothing to it at all. He wiped his glasses with his finger like a windshield wiper. They fogged up again and he took them off and squinted at the paper.
"Mrs. Er-ness-toe De Angel...?"
Mother nodded. "DeAngelo, yes.††Ernest. It's just Ernie. His name is. Yes. Ernesto. But he's just Ernie."
He brushed the snow off the envelope, gently. He was so gentle; she reached for it, took it, held it, turned it over in her hands. He said, "sign here," and gave her a book and a pen. It wouldn't write.
"Sorry," she said. He took back the pen and blew on it, then rolled it between his two hands, shook it. A big splat of blue plopped onto the snow on the porch. "Sorry," he said. She said, "That's alright." and wrote in the man's book. She put the cap back on the pen and handed it to him, said, "I'll have to get you some money..." and he, "That's okay, Mrs. ma'am. That's okay. I don't need any. I don't usually get." Then he was gone toward town. Another blast of wind rolled the snow, but I could still see him. In a second, the trolley loomed down the hill. It slid on the rails. Sparks showered into the snow from the line above. It stopped. Silent for a moment. It was the only thing we could see in the world. And the man. The trolley and the man. The man got into the trolley. The bell clanged and sounded very close in the wooly snow and the silence. The sweep of the wind went with it, somehow. The trolley growled its sandy wheels against the tracks and disappeared toward town.
Mother held the envelope. I had been forgotten. The wooly button at my mouth was still loose. The envelope was very small.
I knew it meant that daddy wouldn't be home; that he was going to stay at the Pacific Theater. Until the next show. Or the next one. Can you imagine that? That he'd stay away for a long, long time and that I'd be an orphan, now. I didn't want people to look at me right then. I didn't want them to talk to me. All I knew was the backyard was filled with snow taller than me.
I followed her into the house. I was a ghost. Invisible, I could make noises but not lift things, not change things. I could only be what had already been.
No one spoke. Mother stood in the living room and looked at the envelope. It dripped. Nanna came down from upstairs and stopped on the steps to look. Pop-pop came in from the kitchen and looked. I continued on through the house. No one noticed. To the kitchen. There were voices, distant, behind me. I went out back. I was ready for the snow, for the day. The whole expanse of the yard was at my feet. The snow drifted in curving hills to the second floor of Uncle Erby's place. Maggie the dog, looked out an upper window at me. Her tongue on the glass made clear places in the breath haze that bloomed around her nose and muzzle.
The snow started at my feet. I could tunnel through the world, I thought. A tunnel could go anywhere. Everywhere. It would be very cold under the snow, but maybe not too dark. Snow was white.
I dragged open the door to the back porch toilet, the kaibo Pop-pop called it. It was now just a storage place for garden things, junk, old spiders and must, things forgotten. My summer shovel and pail. Too small to dig a tunnel through the world. I tossed them aside. I found Nanna's garden spade. Too long. Too heavy. Pop-pop's cinder shovel was just my size. He used it to fill gunny sacks with furnace ashes. These he kept in the trunk of the LaSalle for winter weight, for traction. The shovel was short. Light. It had a pointed blade. I could dig anywhere with it. A good tool is the first part of a good job, Daddy'd said.
I scooped as I waded down the steps. I tossed, packed, shoved and soon was at the bottom of the porch stairs. The snow rose over my head. I was surrounded by whiteness and was dripping hot already. Sweat tickled down my back and became cold on my skin. I pushed my mittens into the snow in front. It gave way. I leaned into it and fell, slowly, gently carried to the ground. I scooped shovelsful behind me. Soon I was on my knees and burrowing like a groundhog on my way. I shoved the cold, packed whiteness aside, pressing it against the walls of my tunnel. Forcing my way into the heart of winter. It was bright day.

I realized soon how large the world was. I had no idea before. I scooped and scraped, patted and pressed the sides of the tunnel, the roof, smoothed it all, made it nice. Kept going. The sun was far away, on the other side of the snow roof. Out there.
Faint light seeped from where I had begun at the porch, down to where I dug. It darkened as I scooped. I wished I had brought daddy's nightcrawler lantern. I could see it under his bench in the basement. I could see it in the cardboard box, a rag covering most of it. I could see its little clear dome and shiny handle, its flat metal base. I could feel its weight, carrying it. In the darkening snow tunnel, I could almost see the rings of light it made on the tree leaves overhead, could almost hear daddy talking about the fishing we'd have with this beauty that he dangled in my nose before dropping it wriggling into the pail, laughing. Mosquitos and other sweaty summer bugs sang in my ears, climbed in the light against the leaves. The fat worm wriggled into the dirt in the pail and was gone.
The lamp was back there, a world away. In the basement, under the place where people talked.
My breath was just dull gray, now, not silver bright anymore. I wondered how far I'd come. Nowhere near the other side of the world, I knew that. I didn't think I was even at the end of the yard. I tucked my knees to my chin and scooted 'round to lean against the tunnel wall and breathe. The Erby house was ahead. I'd have to get around it. That was first. Then around their garage. Then through Pan's Park. Then up the mountain. After the mountain was the other side, down to Carsonia. A long way from there was Philly. After that, I wasn't sure. I knew that the Pacific Theater started somewhere after Philly. Daddy had gone first to Philly. Then somewhere else.
If I could only remember what Daddy had said. About everything. I could find him, if I could remember. I knew that. Everything that Daddy had said was important, now. Was clues. I had to remember to not get confused with other things. Things I made up, things other people told me. If I could remember it all, I could get to him and we could watch Gone With the Wind together at the Pacific Theater, then come home. Maybe get some ice cream first at Rexall, some hot chocolate. Then we'd come home. I was really mad. Just like daddy got sometimes at me. I was really mad!
When I punched the sides of the tunnel, the wall gave way a little. I punched it again, then I scooped. I widened the scoop. I scraped above, dug below. Soon there was a side passage going a different way. It pointed toward 18th Street. I knew that. The world was so large. I could avoid the Erby house, go around it, then up, up, up the mountain. I started deepening this new route. It was very, very dark in a very short time. Black. I had to back out to where I had branched off. Maybe the other way. I dug for another few minutes until it got too dark in that way and returned to the main shaft.
A curve? Maybe the light would follow a gentle bend? It seemed right and I started to angle left, making the main route to the world into a long gentle arc. Soon it was dark again and I just wanted to stretch out and rest. I was going to need light. I scooped out a little room in the snow, enough space for me to just stretch out. I lay flat on my back. Looked up. If I closed my eyes and pressed against them with my mittens, it was a different dark than if I kept them open. I liked that. It was so quiet out here in the world. The snow was just a few inches above my face. I reached up and smoothed it. Smoothed it flat. Smoothed it hard like a well-packed snowball. It was warmer in there than it was on the outside where wind blew and the cold tried to suck the air out of my chest. There was no wind and the tips of my ears were hot. My fingers were wrinkled. It was warm. I made a little place to lean. It fit me well and was so comfortable. I scraped the ceiling. Some snow fell in my face. It tasted good. Almost sweet. It melted in my mouth and trickled down my throat. It melted on my nose and ran down my neck.
How long would the snow last? How long until it went away and the whole earth would be hard and confusing again with too many roads everywhere and not enough ways to get there? Snow always lasted a long time, but never long enough. I couldn't really rest if I was going to tunnel to the Pacific to find Daddy. I started again. Didn't think, just started into the darkness.
That is what I'm doing, I said. I'm digging to find Daddy at the Pacific Theater and watch Gone With the Wind with him, Sock, the Morons, the First Shirt and all the guys from basic training and his letters. We'd all be together. Maybe I'd need an airplane to fly over the boot camp, to fly over England where the drooling British lived in darkness, and to get to the Pacific Theater where they were all watching Gone With the Wind. I knew it was a long way to travel. But all the world was covered in snow. I was certain of that and that meant that I could get there from here. I'd dig under boot camp, under the British. Then I'll bring him home and we can all go to Carsonia Park and this time, THIS time, I will, I will ride Blitzen the Roller Coaster and maybe I'll even stand and not worry about the "Don't Stand" sign. I'll forget about rats and dirty feet. We'll go to the shooting gallery and shoot the bear together and win big rabbits and give them to Mother. I won't loose my shirt, I won't loose my head.
I was digging in the dark as I was thinking. It was pitch black. I couldn't see anything. I could just feel the snow, the cool snow giving way and being left behind. I hit something. It was hard. It was not ground, not snow. I scraped away around it. It was wood. I could feel it. Wood. It was smooth. I recognized its feel. It was an edge, the edge of my sandbox. I had dug to the sandbox. I was only to the sandbox. On it, had I been able to see, would be puppies playing with butterflies. A boy and a girl digging in the sand by a beach. Waves would be rolling, painted on the wood of my sandbox. I was only to the box and days must have gone by since I started. I scooped around the edge of the box, opened up the tunnel to another direction. I was angry, yelling, was only to the sandbox. I stopped and leaned against the wood. It felt warm. Summer was still in it. The plywood top covered the sand. The sand was summer. It was still there. Still in the box under the snow with me. It was summer and back when I had a daddy.
I could hear my breath coming in and going out. I couldn't see it. Soon I got quieter. It was warmer. I heard nothing. No breathing. No. No wind. Nothing at all. Not Carsonia. Just the distant voices of memory.
My tunnel dropped away; it fell behind me. I was lifted from the world into a swirl of snow and the blasts of wind; there were arms all around me. There were legs and chests, Pop-pop's jowls and Mother. Her hands took me. Hands carried me to the house. It was hot. I was laid on the table. The light was overhead. Bright. I felt hands reaching, opening my snowsuit, hands reaching into the wet wool and drawing me out, peeling my clothes away. Then, I was bare and was being carried up the steps. Water was running in the tub. Mother's hands rubbed me. Nanna's voice said rub him with a terrycloth towel. Rub him and here, make him drink this shot of liquor. And burning hot, it went down my throat and sat warm in my stomach. I wanted to and I did throw up. Then I went into the hot, hot water and everything was steam, and water lapping in my ears. And there were tears.
Later, Mother told me, in bed, that Daddy was lost in action in the Pacific Theater. I knew that. But I listened to her anyway.
I wondered for days after if I had died. Of course I had not. Dr. Kotzen said I was fine. Pop-pop looked for his shovel for a long time. I kept thinking it was in the Pacific. When the snow was gone, there it was.

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