This morning the snow is falling again. It has already filled in the ruts in the drive. The snow makes me happy. Under it tired landscapes concede, errors disappear, and sin is borne under, the whiteness an absolute of infinite possible beginnings.
The baby is still asleep and I wander about the house looking out of the windows. From the kitchen I can see the fields, which go on and on like a vast white sea glazed by sunlight. A pattern of weather has set in. The morning clears and we can watch the spot of sun breaking the gray surround. By early afternoon it closes in again and the gray becomes dotted with white as the snow begins to fail. When the snow is falling the temperature rises as high as 20° but by late afternoon the sky clears and it drops again to zero.
In these warm interludes I take the baby out. She walks over the crust while I break through and flounder in the drifts. It frightens me to imagine I will not be able to climb out of my own footshafts. There I will thrash and make deeper and deeper the cave I am creating, while the baby crawls away to freeze and die.
And I myself to be found in the spring lying in the mud of melted snow. These thoughts are romantic, but not entirely. There is a neighbor down the road but the roads become impassable every few days. Sometimes it takes twenty-four hours for the machines and men to clear them. And often in the spasmodic storms of this strange winter, the electricity goes off, and even the telephone lines go down. Time enough to die.
when the roads are clear and I go to the village I am hungry for my exchange with the grocery clerk. It is revivifying to have this talk with him. We talk about the weather here, and then the weather in other places; we discuss the food I’m buying, he advises me, I pay and go away into the frozen dream of the snow-shrouded days.
It is a lovely world. On either side of the road the plows have piled the snow in walls higher than the car. In this tunnel cut off from all impressions of the countryside, I am both frightened and excited. There is only the child to tell me I am not in a dream, or to indicate that I will not go on forever down a white tunnel filling the emptiness with images from my mind. Yet she may be myself, a chosen companion from my mind, her reality lost in a dim yearning from my own childhood. But there is excitement in the newness, and the danger of not knowing.
The road out from the village is lined by white trees patched with black bark. This windbreak stops abruptly as the road reaches the fields-there wind blowing unimpeded levels the ramparts made by the plows, and colors from the sky come flooding down across the plain. At the pond the dominant sky tone rules. Today it is dull wine; pink, purple and plum leak away into the snow. In this light and sky one is live and quieted.
Crossing the creek that feeds the pond I look to see if anything is moving on the shore. Two gulls glide down the frozen water.
Everything is mixed for me. I see very clearly and at the same time can make no sense out of my life. I am exhilarated in this lonely waste and am desperate too. This isolation was not chosen and yet I did nothing to avert it. It came on as implacably as the storms that ride in from the northeast. If some- one were to rescue me, I could get out-of this place, of myself. But no one will come here now. I myself arrived with friends late last spring. More people came in the summer to live in the cabins or rented houses belonging to the farmers. I could have moved out with the others when September came, but the new season attracted me and the silence drew me.
I see no one except those who perform services; the man who brings the fuel for the oil burner, the plumber who keeps the furnace operating, and recently a man that I called to clean a heavy upholstered chair that the baby and I between us have almost ruined. I like to eat and read in the chair and at times miss the plate while setting down food. Although the man worked on the chair for some time, using different strong smell quids, none of them seemed to help. He asked permission to sprinkle a gray powder over the stains and then we waited for the powder to absorb the offending substances. During this time he made an effort to amuse the child, showing her all the bottles and brushes, sponges and cloths in his case, and then he tried to teach her patty cake baker’s man. But this didn’t interest her very long, so he let her look through his things again, taking care that she didn’t break anything. The powder tuned out to be no better than the other cleaning agents, as he called them, so I suppose I will have to get the dry goods store to come and make a slipcover, and hope it will satisfy the owner. The furniture came with the house and I agreed to care for it.
Others come periodically; one man comes to change the empty butane tank for a full one; the farmer comes to plow my road, using a potato rake attached to his tractor for a scoop. He comes as soon as the snow stops, whatever the hour. One night he began at nearly nine, the lights of the tractor fore and aft shining on the snow that he was working. I watched each gesture of the machine which looked in the night like a great buzzing insect, its silvery feelers alternately waving in the air and probing the ground, grotesque in its square movements as though a primitive brain were laboriously thinking out each effort. The farmer was talkative but not respectful of me as a person having in the world. I could tell he did not take me seriously: as a being who haves rightfully an everyday life on this earth. He made jaunty remarks which meant nothing to me except that they made me uneasy. I, on the other hand, always spoke to him with great seriousness, admired his work and thanked him profusely as though I were not paying him. He made it clear that he was charging me less than others would have... yet he never made overtures, never called. Perhaps he thought because I stood in the snow and watched the tractor... ah! it gets too complicated.
Aside from these random events the days are as glass. With nothing to snag on I feel simultaneously that I am skidding down them to the end; and also that I have stopped, dead still, in the center of a clear distance. The distance is time. I hear and see, but the impression of a voice, a face, an object in the room is far away as though it is coming through time to reach me. It does not arrive because I do not wait and a new object or impression is on its way. I think it would never arrive anyway.
Only the child is immediate. I do not have to pinch myself, I have only to touch her. Because of her the solitude is of course not genuine. The child is company, a distraction as well as a focal point; at two she demands all my attention except when sleeping. It is society that I am cut off from. It makes me realize how much of my life was consumed in the daily confrontation of personalities. Now I confront my own. There is no one to save me from it. But there are means of escape, the newspaper for example. I can begin reading the newspaper at seven in the evening after the baby is in bed and at eleven discover I am still reading it. I had plunged into the print, sounding word after word in my mind, following the lines across the page, crossing over the pictures in the same flat way, until at a certain moment I wake up and come out of the sea of print. Perhaps the need for sleep brings me around.
Another thing I do is dream of travel. This happens especially when I am stricken by “cabin fever.” The trappers overtaken in their lifeless cabins by the great silences of the far north go screaming off into the snow: I begin to dream. The best solution is to become as still as the surrounding silence. Who can accomplish this? Or else return to a style of life that will attenuate the demands that swarm through me. Here in this desolate place I begin thinking about other places to go. They are usually the same places... sunny refuges from the world, the south of France, Mexico, Haiti. There living will be comfortable and adventure overtake me. In between adventuresome high points I will enjoy the sensual pleasures of the sun. In the north the Sargent sense is sight. Touch, smell, and sound are minor, produced only by events. In the southern places of the world tie heavy air bears smells and sounds in a drifting stream, their source unknown.
The palpable south leaves you waiting. The visual north keeps you looking.
And I am tired. I dream of a rich man and old-not too old -whose great joy is to care for me. He knows I cannot return his passion but still he is satisfied to have me as a companion with my little girl. We are on his yacht sailing south. Another day in the future I will meet my true love, but now I am resting with the old man.
From the edge of my reverie I see the depression in the snow fields made by the lane leading to our house, and for a moment or two my consciousness struggles between the yacht and the road on which I find myself It takes several seconds for the new impressions to remind me of my whereabouts. The adoring old man had made me so comfortable.
I back the car and tum into the drive. Someone has been there leaving the ruts deeper and wider. I say to the child, “Look, we are almost home,” and point out in the distance the black pines that hug the house; she is busy ripping at a box of crackers. The house itself is white as the snow and cannot be seen, but against the sky the cupola is outlined, left from another time and function. What it was I do not know. There are no clues left. Over the simple shed shape of the house dormers jut out on all sides giving walls and windows to the second floor. The first floor is a great cement hall at the end of which are the stairs. There are two small windows in this hall which affect but a small portion of the space and I always leave a light burning in tile stair well. I think often of what sort of place this was. Perhaps a forge and the tower of the cupola let out the heat and smoke; or a tiny factory where the men sat at benches working delicate pieces with elegant small tools. Or it could have been a storage place for farm equipment. Later the space was divided horizontally making the living quarters above and rendering all but useless the enormous space below with its ceiling scarcely higher than myself I have never asked anyone about the history of my dwelling although I’m sure any of the local people could tell me its probable prosaic past.
I am curious about who has preceded me down the drive. Several possibilities parade through my mind, i) A special delivery letter has been brought out to me. But from whom? One of my parents has died and they have lost my telephone number. 2) A fascinating person who lives in the hills beyond the town has heard about me and makes bold to call. He is a mystic and wants to know me. 3) An ancient lover regretting our parting comes to seek me anew. 4) The principal of the school comes to find out if there are any school-age children in the house.
If it is any of these he has arrived by bus, one of those combination car-buses, which is sitting before the huge doors of the hall. No words are painted on the side to indicate its errand, but I see that the snow has been packed down by the wheels of the heavy bus going back and forth. There is now an area large enough for me to tum the car in. Afraid of getting mired in the deep snow I have always taken the car into the hall, made a sweeping tum, and gone out again into the two tracks I have come over. The baby loves this and shouts and laughs as we wheel around the dim corridor.
With the groceries and the child hugged in one bundle I make my way easily over the packed snow. The child slips to the ground and I unlatch the door and help her over the high sill. The grey hght from the window and the yellowish light of the bulb have blended giving a density to the air around the door to the stairs. There is no sound. In the thick light the child looks misty and unsubstantial.
At the top of the stairs I tum right into the kitchen and set down the heavy bag. The child runs to the living room and I hear a crow of greeting.
At the far end of the room a man is crouching before the upholstered chair. He is rubbing at the arm. I remember then, the furniture shampooer. He has, after all, returned with the new cleaner he said he wished to try.
I feel uneasy. He is a polite young’man, but I remember his eyes. They were like transparent covers over enormities of feeling, cauldrons simmering at a constant. I walk over to him and inquire about the new cleaner. We stare at each other. The child looks from one to the other and then touches us both, putting a hand on his pant leg and gathering in the other a bit of my coat. Self-conscious, I begin to speak, repeating my question. He says he can’t tell yet, the application has not had time to dry.
The child and I sit down at the table and began to work a puzzle. All the pieces are laid out. The shampooer tells us about himself. “Not married. I’m free to do as I please.” Without looking up I see his head tum towards me. He speaks with pride about his independence, how when he tires of life in one place he jumps into his bus and moves on, shampooing along the way. Besides the elixirs of his trade, he keeps in the bus his cooking utensils and a mattress.
I find two pieces of the puzzle and show the child how they interlock. He tums back to the chair and begins to drench it again. Perhaps he is not so pleased with his life. Why is he still here, this of all winters?
“I was born here,” he says. “I left Florida in October. I got tired of all the seasons being the same.” The snow began in December and it is now late January. “I really don’t know why I stayed on. Three months is enough staying witli your folks. And God knows there’s nothing going on here.” I ask him what goes on in other places and think of girls, movies, bars, baseball...
“No,” he says as if foreseeing my expectation, the climate’s different other places, that’s all. It is a difference though, if you see what I mean.
Indeed. Haven’t I said it myself Here I am trying to save myself by investigation. In the South I doubt I would be able to enjoy myself. Here at least I take pleasure in thinking about pleasure.
“Look mama!” The child fits a piece that fits. Is it going to be a dog?”
“We’ll see. Look for another piece that has this color. The man makes a comment about the child. “She is old, he says, “and speaks very well.” I nod because he sees that she is privy to something we have lost.
He is going over the chair again. Although I think he is lonely, there is only so much that can be done on a chair. It is brighter but the major stains remain. I pay him five dollars and wait at the top of the stair which leads below.
He packs his bottles, cans, rags in an open wooden case and joins me. Facing into the living room as I face down the stairwell he begins to talk again... covering the sofa is expensive, he will find out the best place and telephone me; the weather: it must be difficult-the driveway without chains no trouble of course with the bus.
Although I have not thanked him for having made a place for me to tum the car in the drive (saving me the difficulty, he thought, of backing down the ruts to the road), I stand silent. Grounds for sentences weaken. His face becomes wistful and the words trail each other emptily. The words speak of sofas and snow but the expression says why not? I am free and it is simple and outside is a cold and snowy world.
I tum toward the kitchen. He knows no more than I.
The child comes up wearing his jacket like a great cloak: “You forgot your coat.” I heard him draw his breath in as he turned. “Oh,” he says, “I forgot my jacket.” He walks quickly down the steps. His footsteps ring across the long cement hall, and we hear the slam of the outer door.
It has become dark, the quick black of mid-winter. A three quarters moon accompanied by a few bright wide-scattered stars shines on the fields of snow. There is a drip of water in the toilet and somewhere in the house a joint creaks. I have the feeling we are on a sailing ship under a slow and steady wind. The water slips by the hull with a regular slap and the masts creak in accompanying rhythm. From the windows the sea of snow is white under the moon.
Here I ride on an empty ship with no one at the helm. We move as the wind moves us, and from time to time I walk about the ship or peer from the galley at lights on the horizon. There is another passenger but she is the same as me.