“The Weight of Snowflakes” by Lois Melina

06 December 2019 on Fiction   Tags: , , ,

1.

The snow fell easily, reflected in the headlights against the darkness of the highway. The large, flat flakes seemed almost make-believe to Debra, like Lux detergent floating down from the sky, the way they made it snow on TV. She trusted Stan to take the curves slowly, as unhurried as the snow, even though they’d left Indianapolis late, after Stan’s Friday stats class. It would be hours before they’d arrive at the cabin.

The heater on the passenger side was broken. Debra pulled a sleeping bag up to her chin, imagining it a bearskin rug with fur tickling her throat. She leaned her head back and pictured them in a sleigh drawn by a dark horse, like Lara and Yuri in Dr. Zhivago. It was the best movie she’d ever seen, but Stan said any movie with an intermission was too long.

Fort Wayne.

Lansing.

Mt. Pleasant.

They made their way north, Stan sometimes beating a rhythm on the steering wheel, using his fingers like drumsticks. Debra wondered if he missed the drum kit that wouldn’t fit in their apartment.

Stan reached over and tried to take Debra’s hand, buried deep in the sleeping bag.

“Talk to me.”

She found his hand through the down.

“Are you getting tired?” He’d worked late the night before, sleeping only a few hours before getting up for his first class.

“A little.”

She rested her head on Stan’s shoulder.

“We could talk about having a baby.”

Stan slipped his hand out of Debra’s, downshifted the Corvair even though the hill wasn’t that steep. Debra sat up and clutched the soft fabric in her hand, imagined the fluff of hair on a newborn’s head, flannel pajamas, a blanket crocheted from pale yellow yarn with pink rosebuds along the edge. Not too much pink.

Stan looked straight ahead. “Let’s just enjoy being together right now.”

Debra wasn’t sure if “now” meant their twenties or this rare weekend when neither of them had to work and they could get away from their apartment where the ice crystalized on the inside of the windows in a way that wasn’t romantic like when Yuri and Lara arrived at the ice castle. A family Debra babysat for had loaned them the cabin.

“We’re studying The Snow Queen in my psych class,” Debra said, to change the subject and warm the air that had suddenly cooled.

Stan shook his head. “I don’t get why they give credit for that.”

Debra pulled her arms out of the sleeping bag.

“Fairy tales are windows to the unconscious. They’re about universal truths.”

“What’s universal about a girl living in the woods with dwarfs?”

“It’s not Snow White; it’s The Snow Queen.”

“I don’t know that one.”

“I could tell it to you.”

“The idea is to keep me awake.”

“Like this?” Deb jabbed her elbow into Stan lightly.

He grabbed her hand, put it between his legs. “Like this.”

She pulled away. “The idea is to not have an accident.” She wrapped her arms around his right arm and put her head back on his shoulder. “Tomorrow,” she promised.

Debra fell asleep long before they reached Petoskey, on the shore of Lake Michigan, close to the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula. She woke to the whirr of tires spinning as Stan pulled into the unplowed driveway. Snow rounded on tops of bushes, the sides of the mounds sheared off in places as though sculpted by a snow gardener. A drift covered the front porch, but the snow was dry and light and gave way when Stan opened the screen door.

“I’ll shovel in the morning,” he said.

*

Stan woke with a sore throat and fever.

“You should still ski,” he said.

Debra shook her head. She found Constant Comment tea in a cupboard and made him a cup. He took a sip, testing the heat before drinking deeply.

“Spicy. It hits the spot.”

She picked up her copy of Andersen’s Fairy Tales and positioned herself on the queen-size bed next to Stan. His tall, lanky body shivered under a down comforter. She read out loud:

“The evil sprite had a mirror that made everything good and beautiful look ugly and mean. One day it fell to earth and smashed into millions of pieces. The shards of glass flew around the world. Some were as tiny as grains of salt and settled in people’s eyes. Splinters pierced people’s hearts, turning them cold. Larger pieces were made into eyeglasses distorting whatever was seen through them, making beautiful things ugly and making dull things seem to shimmer. Everyone thought they were seeing the world as it really was, but they were mistaken.”

Debra touched Stan’s hand. It was burning with fever.

“You should eat something,” she said.

She made soup from an envelope that had small chunks of chicken and thin, broken noodles. She put it in a mug. Steam rose from the mug and dissipated into the air. Stan took it, folding his hands over Debra’s before letting her relinquish the mug.

“You take good care of me.”

*

The next day Stan’s fever broke and they made love on the living room floor, in front of the fireplace where Stan had stacked birch logs, their white bark curling in the flames. Debra wore the black lace panties she’d bought to surprise Stan. She put in her diaphragm.

After, Debra covered the two of them with an afghan, pulling it over their shoulders and exposing their toes.

“Doesn’t seem right that these people have a vacation home bigger than our apartment,” Stan said.

Debra curled into him. “Maybe we’re wearing those enchanted glasses that distort what you see. Maybe our apartment really has parquet floors and marble counters in the kitchen and spice tea in the cupboards.”

Stan traced her mouth with his finger. “But you’re beautiful, so the glasses would make you look ugly.”

“But with the glasses, my tits would be huge,” Debra said, and Stan reached for one and showed her he liked them the way they were.

2.

Three winters passed.

They left after work on a Friday of a three-day weekend. Stan wanted to take vacation time and leave on Thursday, but Debra had classes and teaching duties as a graduate assistant. They packed tent and sleeping bags, camp stove and cooler, the 12-gauge and shells. The puppy rode between them. They drove in the dark. Snow fell like salt from a shaker, sounding like delicate beads hitting the hood of the white Datsun truck.

When they were an hour out of Indianapolis, the truck began to sputter and jerk. Exit ramps off the expressway disappeared into the bare fields with no sign of a gas station.

“You drove it last,” Debra said.

“I think the gauge is broken.”

“All the more reason to keep it topped off.”

They finally coasted to a gas station, which was long past closed, the restrooms locked. Stan got the sleeping bags, and they slept in the cab, leaning against the doors, Debra’s legs in Stan’s lap, the pointer curled on the floor beside her. In the morning, they filled the tank and bought donuts and coffee at the strip mall next to the station.

They got to Iowa mid-morning and set up the tent before heading into a forest, the slender dog struggling in the deep snow. Debra stepped into the wells made by Stan’s longer strides, wider boots, walking behind the gun in case a rabbit flushed, the way she’d learned with her father. The ends of her fingers blanched inside her gloves.She didn’t hunt, but she liked the quiet of the woods, the smell of pine, the challenge of trying to think like a rabbit or a pheasant or a deer: Where will I find food? Where will I feel safe?

An airplane cut across the clear sky, its drone breaking into the silence. Now and then a mass of whiteness would slide off the bough of a tree and land hard, billowing in a momentary blizzard. Debra warmed with the effort of reaching for the space Stan made in the snow. Sweat dampened her thermal underwear, and blood returned to her fingertips, purple and throbbing.

When Debra pulled down her tan canvas pants and long johns and squatted so she could pee, Stan laughed at her bare ass exposed to the Midwest wind. She laughed, too, until she saw the drops of red in the yellow snow beneath her.

She pulled up her pants, zipped them, snugged her jacket back down over her hips.

“Well, I’m not pregnant.”

Stan walked over to her, held her with one arm while the dog jumped on them. He kissed Debra’s forehead. “It’ll happen. Alls we can do is be patient.”

Debra remembered when he would have said: Alls we can do is keep trying, with enthusiasm for the frequency required. But making love had become an effort, dictated by monthly ovulation charts.

They walked back to the campground having seen no rabbits, having not even spotted any rabbit tracks in the snow. Debra eyelashes froze.

Stan built a fire, the wet wood smoking thickly. He made soup. Debra shivered. “I’m chilled to the bone.”

“Let’s go into town,” Stan said.

They drove to a diner where they ordered French fries and coffee and said yes to the waitress’s offers of refills until she brought them the check and stood by while Stan reached into the pocket of his jeans for his wallet. Back in the truck, Stan wiped off the windows fogged by the dog. They drove past a Catholic church where people were walking up the steps for Saturday night mass.

“Can we go in?” Debra asked. “I’m not ready for the cold.”

“Let me let the dog out for a minute first.”

The church smelled like wet leather and candles. She and Stan sat in the last row. Under the pews polished smooth by years of use, the hot water pipes crackled. Stan and Debra stayed seated when the congregation filed up to the altar to receive communion. Debra said a prayer, even though it seemed arrogant when she wasn’t sure she even believed in God: Please. I promise I’ll be a good mother.

A baby began to cry, and Debra briefly considered whether God was sending her a sign that he’d heard her prayer. The crying continued. The mother brushed past the others in the pew and walked up the aisle to the vestibule. Debra felt her chest tighten with longing and she blinked back her own tears. She leaned over to Stan. “Let’s go.”

Back at the campground, they didn’t build another fire or look at the stars in the clear sky, but crawled into their sleeping bags, pulling the hoods tight. The brown and white dog curled into the space between them.

“Are you warm enough?” Stan asked.

“I’m okay.”

“You want my jacket?”

“No.” Pause. “Thanks.”

After a while, when Debra didn’t hear Stan snoring, she whispered:

“Are you still awake?”

“Yeah,” Stan said. “Too much coffee. Tell me one of your fairy tales.”

Debra rolled towards him, and he rolled towards her. The dog between them stirred and settled. Debra, her voice soft as rabbit fur, recited a story of longing and fear, of mistakes and adventure, ending with a broken spell:

He began to weep, and he cried so hard the splinters washed out of his eyes. The boy and the girl looked at each other and realized they were no longer children, but were grown-up persons.

When she’d finished, Stan said something, but his words sounded far away to Debra, who felt herself drifting off.

*

Debra woke alone. She smelled coffee and bacon and wood smoke. She poked her head out of the tent. Stan stood by the fire holding a blue enamel mug dotted with white. The dog was at his feet eating dry food from a bowl. Debra walked to the toilets. When she came back, she told Stan she had cramps and wanted to spend the day in camp. “You should still go hunting,” she said. “You’ve always wanted to do this, and we came all this way.” Her breath billowed white, mingled with the steam from her coffee.

“Are you sure?”

She nodded. “I have reading I can do.”

Stan left with the dog, the gun resting on his shoulder. Debra added wood to the fire and made more coffee. Instead of reading, she imagined a little boy, the two of them lying on their backs in the grass seeing animal shapes in billowing clouds. She would tell him stories until he fell asleep, his chest rising and falling evenly. He would smell like soap and peanut butter.

She was about to pour a fresh cup of coffee when she saw the dog bounding over the snow towards her, Stan close behind.

“I don’t want to leave you alone today,” he said as he sat down beside her, his arm pulling her into him. The dog put his head in her lap. A log burned through and Stan used a stick to push the pieces onto the hot embers.

“Tell me something about fairy tales.”

“You’ve read my thesis.”

“But I like when you talk about it.”

“I know what you’re trying to do.”

“Then let me help.”

Debra took a deep breath. Exhaled. “It won’t help.”

She cramped again and bent over her arms folded against her abdomen. She made a small sound.

Stan emptied a jar of pickles into a dish, then filled the jar with hot coffee. He tightened the lid and gave it to Debra. She held it against her belly, curled around it while Stan took down the tent and packed the truck. She thought how it would feel to hold a baby against her body, skin to skin.

3.

Two more winters passed.

Southern Indiana in December: bare and brown. Black locust. White ash. Trees with leaves curled and crisp on the ground, their color faded, their likeness to tulips and teardrops gone.

Again, Stan and Debra left after work, too late, too tired. Debra turned on the overhead light to read the map. “I can’t see the road with the light on,” Stan said. The white frame house, rented from an ad in the newspaper, stood alone, back from the narrow lane, two stark sycamores and a split rail fence in the front. They drove by three times before they agreed it was the right place and no one was likely to greet them with a shotgun if they walked up to the front door.

The air smelled like dry leaves. Stan carried bags inside, the pointer walking beside him. Debra carried the empty space in her body where, two weeks before, there’d been a baby. They brought soup to heat on the stove. Stan brought a book to read in front of the fireplace, and Debra brought papers to grade.

“Can’t you leave them, just this once?”

“They give me something else to think about.”

A few snowflakes swirled, disappearing when they reached the ground.

Debra stacked logs, crumpled newspaper, laid kindling, lit a long match from the basket on the hearth. The smell of sulfur. She was still squatting by the fire when Stan came downstairs, his boots clattering on the stairs, the dog following behind. Stan shook his head.

“You’re not going to like it,” he said, grimacing. “Smells like pee. The sheets are stained, too. The last people who stayed here probably had a kid who wet the bed.”

Debra held her breath, held the ghost of the child who’d been in the house just before them, the ghost of their baby. She held the neglect of the bedding along with Stan’s tenderness in suggesting this weekend away when she knew he didn’t feel the loss as deeply as she did. The pregnancy had been so early, the baby in her body, not in his, and now not in hers either.

The wood in the fireplace popped as it caught. Debra leaned in to blow on it. Stan squatted behind her, folded her in his arms, his chin on her shoulder. She reached up, wrapping one arm around his head.

Debra heard a low buzz at the window. Flies with bulging green-blue eyes lined the glass on the inside, moving languidly as though awakened from a winter sleep by the warmth filling the room.

“Oh, for the love of God,” Debra said, laughing. “Could this be any more dreadful?” “We must be wearing those awful enchanted glasses,” Stan said, “remember those?” Debra nodded, wondering if Stan also remembered how they’d made love in every room that weekend in Petoskey.

Stan whispered, his lips close to her ear, “Let’s go. We can find a motel. Or go home.” Debra shook her head. “It’s too late.”

So they made soup and Constant Comment tea and ate silently before the fire, steam from the mugs and bowls fogging their glasses.

When they finished, Debra took the empty dishes to the sink. “Maybe we can get our money back,” she said. But she meant: Maybe they could rewind the clock to the weeks before she felt the cramping followed by dullness in her body. She meant: Maybe we can get back the sense of living in a world that has not been upended.

Stan settled in the chair near the fire, the dog at his feet. Debra lay on the narrow sofa in her sweatpants and socks and ski parka, curling around a pillow. She pulled an afghan of crocheted granny squares over her. She thought about the king and queen who waited a long time to have a baby, but when they finally had one, an evil witch cursed it, saying the princess would die on her 15th birthday. A fairy godmother interceded and instead of the girl dying, she fell into a deep sleep, along with the king and queen and everyone in the kingdom.

Debra wished she could fall asleep and not wake up for a hundred years.

4.

Five more winters passed, and Stan and Debra had a baby boy they named Christopher.

Snow fell fast, in that hypnotizing way that makes it appear to be sucked out of blackness into the headlights, like slivers of metal to a magnet. Stan turned on the brights, then turned them off, then on again until Debra said, “Oh, for the love of God, Stan, make up your mind,” and woke the baby who started to cry. Debra turned on the overhead light and reached through the front seats, her fingers raking through crushed saltines and soggy Cherrios on the floor before finding the binky.

“Shit. This needs washed, now.”

Stan drummed on the steering wheel. “Didn’t you pack a spare?”

“It’s in the suitcase. Do you want to stop so I can get it?”

Stan took the binky from Debra, put it in his mouth, and pulled it out again.

“It’s fine now.”

The crying became more insistent. Debra gave the baby the binky.

They didn’t talk until Debra noticed the fuel gauge blinking.

“You didn’t notice we need gas?”

“I did, but we didn’t pass a gas station.”

“You should’ve topped it off before we left.”

The silence after was deep and heavy, like the snow piled on the side of the road. At times it seemed like they were driving through a tunnel.

 When they arrived at the resort, the entrance sign looked as though it was wrapped in a hooded ermine cloak.

They circled until they found the registration cabin with an envelope containing their keys and check-in information, then parked at the log cabin labeled “Blue Spruce.”

“Looks like we’re the only ones here,” Stan said, opening the hatch and helping out the pointer, who moved slowly to the side of the house where he lifted his leg and peed.

Debra carried the baby inside. Stan carried the suitcases and the skis and the portable crib and the Gerry baby carrier and the diaper bag. He put up the crib while Debra sat in a wooden rocker, gently moving back and forth. Stan used the larch and the kindling provided on the hearth to set a fire in the woodstove.

Christopher woke up when Debra laid him in the crib. When he wouldn’t stop crying, Debra put him in the middle of the double bed and lay down beside him. Stan sat in the rocker, scratching the dog’s ears and watching the fire until the black cast iron glowed red. He unfolded the striped wool blanket he found on the couch and fell asleep. He woke to the soft touch of Debra’s hands on his shoulders.

“Come to bed.”

After oatmeal in the morning, they put on their skis outside the cabin door, loaded Christopher’s Gerry pack onto Stan, and headed toward the lake. The sky was cloudless. New snow shimmered like bits of glass in the sun. Stan broke trail, his long legs finding a rhythm even with the baby’s extra weight. Debra kicked and glided behind him, easily keeping up on the snow that Stan packed. She inhaled the smell of spruce and pine and larch, exhaled white. Their two bodies moved in sync with one another—left leg, right leg, left leg, right leg. Debra’s lungs burned. Her cheeks turned pink.

The untouched snow on the surface of the lake and on the boughs of trees made Debra think the three of them were the only people in the world.

She stopped to drink some water, knowing she could catch up to Stan. She took off her skis, fell back into the snow and swung her arms up and down, making a snow angel. Then she stripped off her down jacket and tied it around her waist.

She’d gone only a short way when she saw Stan coming toward her. Christopher was crying. Debra skied quickly to meet them. She replaced the baby’s binky, pinned to his snowsuit, but he spit it out and continued to cry. Stan tried to see over his shoulder.

“Is he hungry already?”

Debra shook her head. “I can’t believe he’d be hungry yet.”

“Diaper?”

Debra sniffed at the opening where the baby’s leg came out of the Gerry pack. “Maybe wet, but he’s not usually that fussy when he’s wet.” She noticed that one of Christopher’s mittens had fallen off and was dangling by a string. She grabbed the baby’s hand. “Oh for the love of God, Stan, his fingers are blue. He’s cold. Shit. What was I thinking?” She pulled off the other mitten and began rubbing the baby’s hands between hers.

Debra untied her jacket while Stan slipped the shoulder straps down so the backpack dropped to the middle of his back. “Get him out,” he said. He wrapped Christopher in Debra’s jacket, then headed for the cabin, cradling the baby in his arms.

“I’m coming,” Debra said, pulling on the empty baby carrier and picking up Stan’s ski poles. But Stan didn’t wait. Her chest tightened and her throat swelled. The extra pair of poles and the constriction in her chest kept her from moving with grace. She fell more than once.

By the time Debra got to the cabin, Stan had thrown logs onto the fire and was sitting in the rocker holding the baby. His sweater and T-shirt and the baby’s snowsuit were on the floor and the two of them were wrapped in the wool blanket. Stan’s cheeks were wet, and Debra wasn’t sure if it was sweat or tears. She lifted the edge of the blanket. Stan was holding the baby against his bare chest, shiny with perspiration. Christopher had stopped fussing.

Debra started to pant, nearly choking with each shallow exhale.

“Stop. You’re going to hyperventilate.”

“Is he breathing?”

 “He’s OK.”

“Oh, Stan,” she said, thinking that if she spoke she could get control of her breath. “How stupid could I be?”

“I didn’t think about it, either.”

“We could’ve lost him,” she said, and her chest throbbed with sobs that came from winters past.

Stan reached out with one arm. Debra sat down on the floor next to the rocker and rested her head on the blanket covering Stan’s knee. Stan put his arm around her shoulders. The dog walked over and nudged his muzzle, flecked with gray, onto her lap.

They fell asleep—Stan and Debra, Christopher and the dog. Debra dreamed they were walking effortlessly in deep drifts. Snowflakes collected on her eyelashes. She blinked, and they melted onto her cheeks.

5.

Thirty-five winters passed.

Stan drove the snow-packed roads slowly while Debra strained to read street signs in the dark.

“I thought the car would have GPS,” Debra said.

“Costs extra. I forgot we wouldn’t have phone service in Canada.”

“I should’ve printed out the map before we left.”

“We’ll find it. The town isn’t that big, and we know the cottage is near the lake.”

“Here. This is it. Right here.”

Stan turned into the recently plowed driveway. They left their skis and boots in the car and carried their bags inside.

*

Debra woke late. Stan had built a fire in the wood stove. The coffee was fresh and hot.

“I’ll email Christopher to let him know we got here,” Debra said.

“I’ve already been to the lake,” Stan said. We can ski to it from here.”

The packed snow on the road squeaked under them. Debra inhaled. The air felt dry and harsh. The tiny hairs in her nostrils froze.

They crossed a snow-covered beach to get to the lake where tracks edged the perimeter. Mountains rose all around them, jagged and treeless at the top, their white summits pointing to a sky the same blue as a hotel pool. An eagle sat beside a hole in the ice left by a fisherman.

They moved quickly on the flat of the lake, Debra following Stan, the two of them picking up the tempo as their muscles warmed.

After, they soaked in a thermal spring. Fog floated above the water where the steam met cold air. Stan swam a few strokes on his back before joining Debra, who’d found a depth where she could stand with only her head above the surface. Heat seeped into her, seeming to warm even the marrow in her bones. Snow fell like dust, making Stan’s already white hair look soft and fuzzy. Debra brushed it off with her hand.

“You should have worn a hat.”

On the way back to the cottage, they stopped at an antique store. Debra was trying on a vintage black sweater with rabbit fur on the collar when Stan called her over. He held up a framed print of a square white house with two trees in the front yard.

“What does this remind you of?”

“That disgusting place in Southern Indiana.”

Stan looked at the back of the print. “It’s a Wyeth.’”

“I don’t think he painted in Indiana,” Debra said, “but it looks a lot like that house.”

“I think we should get it.”

“Oh, for the love of God, Stan, that was a horrible time. The flies. Remember the flies?” They laughed.

“I want to buy it.”

“Why would we want a constant reminder of that miserable weekend?” Debra said, but she meant: Why would I want to remember the time after I lost the baby, when I couldn’t make sense of my thesis and I didn’t care because what difference would it make if that was all I left behind? I couldn’t even get it together to make packaged soup and I had no interest in making love and I didn’t think I would ever feel warm again.

“Because it’s part of our story.”

They bought the print and the sweater. They hung the print across from their bed. Debra saw it when they curled into one another after they made love and when Stan was sick and she brought him soup and tea and on moonlit nights when worry or pain kept them from sleep and Stan asked her to tell him a fairy tale.

Lois Melina is a retired educator, avid rower, and passionate fan of women's soccer. Her essay collection, The Grammar of Untold Stories, is forthcoming from Shanti Arts. The title essay was listed as a "notable work" in Best American Essays, 2018. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Best of the Net Anthology 2016, Colorado Review, Chattahoochee Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and others. She lives in Portland, Oregon where she participates in the Corporeal Writing community founded by Lidia Yuknavitch. You can find more of her words on her website and on Twitter at @LoisMelina .  

"Birch and Red Twig" is a watercolor by Peter Welch. Peter has been a watercolor artist for nearly 20 years, and studied under Maine artist Wendy Turner. His work is eclectic and includes still life, human and animal portraits, nature scenes, and Maine imagery. He enjoys using dynamic and saturated colors, as well as unique perspectives, to capture his subject matter. He lives in Kittery Point, Maine. You can find more of his work on his website.

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