Eve Fisher

I stepped out of the car and the snow whirled up around my boots, burying them. The door shielded my face, and I clung to it for a minute. I could change my mind. I could get back inside, start it up, turn the heater on, warm up a bit, have a cigarette. I stepped away, thinking it over, and the wind slammed the door shut for me. I turned around, and the snow whipped me in the face.
I knew where I was. The car was behind me, facing southwest on the ice-covered gravel road that led to Lake Howard. I could see the top branches of the cottonwoods by the shore. They were waving in the wind, perhaps cheering a game on the ice, or for me to come to them for shelter. Back the other way, northeast, was a paved road that someone might come down. Either way, it was damned cold, and I had to make a choice to get moving or get back in the car. The snow was already packing up against the tires. I was already shivering. I pulled my muffler as tight around my face as I could and started walking.
I know snow. Blizzards are a fact of life up here. They’re fun when you’re safe at home, drinking coffee, looking out the window, and knowing there’s no place you have to go and even if there is, no one will expect you in this weather. You watch the snowdrifts pile up around the trees, around the cars, in that sinuous curve across the lawn that shows where the wind lines meet. When the first snow falls – usually in October – everybody hurries to get in their cars and try it out. Twenty winters and you still have to relearn how to drive in it. Every time, just when you think it’s easy, you hit the brakes wrong and fish-tail.
Later, in November, with the geese gone and the fields stubbling up through white powder, driving is easy, even when it’s windy and the snow drifts across the road in a thin cloud. You have time to look along the sloughs, where the wind’s broken the thin ice, at the water, gun-metal blue with white-capped waves, and rising from each individual wave is a little plume, a little flourish, of white.
And the early mornings and late evenings, after the fields have been blanketed solid, and the snow and the sky are the exact same color, and the only thing that tells you which way is up is the blue-black ribbon of highway.
And then the wind picks up, blowing the snow across that ribbon and under the wheels, where it writhes and dances and curves, giving the dizzying feeling of driving on something tangibly alive.
And later still, in the heart of winter, the snow leaps up from the road, down from the sky, and catches you somewhere in the middle, and driving a car becomes an act of desperation. You can’t see, you can’t hear, you can’t speed up, and you sure as hell can’t stop because who knows whether you’re on the road or a drift or a field and who would ever find you? Who would ever find you?
I know snow. I’ve been out at fifteen below zero, with my hands like wood in my gloves, wood that aches, the cold crisping my legs and the snot running down my nose like a broken faucet. I’ve walked under trees so loaded with ice that they sound like glass when the wind blows, and walking among them is like walking under a forest of crystal swords. I’ve walked on top of ten foot snowdrifts, and broken through a deceptive crust down into a cold, wet, gray-pocked white grave and scrabbled my way out, wet and cold and aching.
I was cold and aching now. Inhale, the smell of wet wool; exhale, the warm wet of my breath. Inhale, the slap of my freezing muffler across my face; exhale, and it billows slightly away. Which is worse, the muffler scraping my face rawer and rawer, or the blizzard wind, which simply wants to freeze it all in one gust? The numb feet stumbling over hummocks too white to see, or the sharp twist in my back when I slip? The pounding in my chest, or the tightening of my neck? Is this the road, or did I drift to the field?
I stopped and tried to see. No blizzard simply blows hard in one direction; there are whirlpools and eddies and streams. It wraps the snow around you – follow the wind, and you’ll dance in a circle until you drop down dead, and then it will cover you, gently and firmly. The High Plains, my cousin Bill once said, prove that the land is an ocean of earth, and the ocean is the wind turned to water. He froze to death in the snow last year. Out with some friends of his, all of them tanked. The cops came, and the guy who was driving was underage and panicked. Hit Bill, didn’t even realize it. Forgot all about him. They found his body a few days later. He loved the winter, so maybe he died happy.
A lot of people die in the winter. The winter obituaries are full of the old: pneumonia, heart, stroke, and just wearing out. There are countless accidents: cars fish-tail through intersections, flip and land upside down on the freeway, slide off the road into the ditch, and break through the ice into frozen lakes. There’s slush and sleet and the long white patches of icy snow by the shelterbelts that never melt until spring. There’s black ice, which isn’t black at all, but clear and invisible as glass. In town, people slip and fall on icy patches of sidewalk, breaking their wrists, their arms, their legs, their heads.
Three men went out driving in a blizzard once. They were crazy, and had had too much to drink. They got stuck in a snowdrift, and they were too drunk to do anything about it except get in the back seat and huddle for warmth. They just sat there, drinking some more, and the car was covered in snow. When they were found, three days later, the two men on the outside had frozen to death. Only the man in the middle had survived.
I scraped at the snow beneath me with my heel. Gravel, so I was still on the road. My eyelashes were white with snow and rime, and blinking hurt. I went forward, hunched again against the wind, which promptly whipped around and nearly knocked me down from the back. The paved road should be coming up soon. It had better be soon. There was a knot, deep in my belly, that was sheer cold, and I knew if it got much larger it would kill me.
It was the deputy who’d found the body who told me the story about the three men in the car. He wondered why they hadn’t run up the radio antennae with a rag on it, to make it easier to find them. Personally – though I said nothing – I wondered if it had all been planned by the survivor. The perfect crime.
I finally reached the paved road. The snow plows hadn’t been through here yet and wouldn’t for a while – the lesser county roads come after the major county roads, which come after the state roads, which come after the interstate, and none of them get done while the wind is blowing. But there were tire tracks, so people had been out recently. I just had to decide which way to hike. I didn’t want to hike anywhere. I wanted to stop. I wanted to rest. I wanted to sit down for a minute, curl up and… And then I would get so cold I’d be warm, and I’d sleep and sleep and sleep and never wake up again. Like those two men in the car. Like Bill.
I turned to the left – northwest. If a car came by, in this weather, they’d stop and pick me up. If no more cars came by, there was bound to be a farmhouse up the road. They’d let me in. And if they weren’t in, their door would probably be unlocked. And even if it wasn’t, and I could figure a way to get in, no one would nail me for breaking and entering. Not in a blizzard. I was going to be okay. I just had to keep going.
Winter’s a dangerous thing to love. It’s pure and it’s gorgeous and it owns this land. It owns us. We sit in our houses with the heat turned up and think what a pretty day it is out there, with the sun gleaming on the snow or the snow dancing in the air. But a tree falls in the ice, and the power goes out and we’re ice men again. We’re out on the road and we’re full of the power of our automobiles and at the same time we know one little slip, one little mistake in judgment or speed or just the chance encounter with a pebble or a bird or a deer and there we are, with winter laughing all around us. You live up here, and it doesn’t take long to understand why crime rates drop like a stone come November. Winter takes the place of crime; winter takes the place of night; winter takes the place of the bogey-man and the mothman and the raptors and everything you’ve ever been afraid of. Winter rules everything, and if you don’t know that, you don’t know anything. And you will die.
There had been no cars. Everyone must have made it home and decided to stay there. There was a ghost of a road to my left, and I figured it led to a farmhouse. I turned. It was harder and harder to keep going. The wind kept pummeling me from all sides. The snow was an inch deep one step, six inches deep the next. Little drifts everywhere. I kept hoping that someone would come. I was praying this wasn’t just a field road, that there really was a house at the end of it.
Dark clouds on the horizon – tall, overgrown lilac bushes, with leaves still on them. Behind them, firs and birches. A shelter belt, and that meant a farm. I took as deep a breath as I could through my frozen muffler, my frozen face, and went on. More trees, and then a yard and, thank God, the buildings. I went past the garage, the outbuildings, and on to the house. Up the stairs to the front porch. The door was locked. I leaned against the door and tried not to die of despair. Then I made myself go back down and around to the back of the house. The back door was open.
The silence. The dark. The warmth. I pulled back my hood, unwrapped my muffler, stripped off my gloves, zipped down my parka. Snow sifted down all around me. I called out:
“Hello? Anybody home? Hello?”
Nothing. Silence. I looked around. I was in the mud room. I knocked as much snow as I could off my boots – no reason to give my unknown benefactors more of a mess to clean up than was necessary – and opened the door into the kitchen. Dark and quiet. I called out again. Still no sounds. I flipped the switch. The lights didn’t come on. The power must be out. I walked through into the dining room, the living room, the small bedroom, past the dark stairs leading to the darker second floor. A tiny bathroom reminded me how long I’d been out. It was cold and smelled of mildew, but at least it wasn’t windy and snowing. I flushed and went back into the kitchen.
I desperately wanted something hot to drink. There was a kettle on a gas stove, so I tried the burner – it didn’t light, but I could smell gas, so I turned it off and started looking for matches. They were in the cupboard by the stove. I filled the kettle, lit the burner, and looked around some more. I found cups in one cupboard, instant coffee in another, and, in a dark corner of the kitchen, the telephone.
I had a decision to make. I thought it over while the water boiled, while I made a cup of coffee, while I drank it. It was the best coffee I’d ever had in my life. I sighed and went to the phone and dialed 911. The dispatcher who answered – probably in Laskin, thirty miles away – asked my name and location, and I read her the telephone number of where I was and how I’d gotten there and how there was nobody home. I told her about going out for a ride. She asked if I was crazy. I told her yeah, and how we’d skidded off the road, into the ditch. She asked if I’d been drinking. I told her no, but Nick had. She asked if Nick was with me. I told her no, that Nick had passed out and was still in the car. She expressed some concern about that.
“Can someone come get him?” I asked.
Maybe. The interstate was closed, the roads were horrendous, only emergency vehicles were allowed out, but maybe. I promised to stay put – where was I going to go? She said they’d do what they could, and we both said goodbye.
I made another cup of coffee, and watched the snow flying past the window. I’d given him a chance; that was more than he’d given Bill. The rest was up to winter.