It was about 108 degrees here today. Reminded me of a story:
It’s the sixth day of snowfall. The chimney and attic window are the only parts of the house not buried and I understand now that this is no ordinary storm. We are probably not getting out alive. I have to decide whether we were going to die in our home or meet our end while making our way down the mountain.
Four years. Four years we have lived in this cabin, isolated from “civilization” just enough to feel alone in the world, but not far enough that we can’t purchase our needs, take care of our banking, wire far-off family and get medical treatment six or seven times a year. The winter weather has been difficult at times, prone to high winds and torrential rain. But the snow rarely comes and never sticks more than a day or two. Until one week ago when the stranger came through.
I want to be clear that I am a trusting man. I made the decision early in life to expect the best from people and hell-be-damned whatever happens, happens. Most of the time, I am not disappointed, because most people are good. After Maye and I had Jeremy and then Marianne the next year I must say that some of the trust went out of me. And by the time we moved to the cabin I was ready for a break from my optimism.
When I heard the meek rap on our front door early one evening during a brewing rainstorm, my heart felt heavy. I opened the great, wooden door on its massive, iron hinges and I saw him for the first time. The clouds seemed darker and the rain heavier and, though I am not a man of psychic experience, I would say I had a foreboding.
Not that he was a menacing fellow. As a matter of fact, he appeared harmless, so much so, that Maye invited him in straightaway to get out of the coming weather. And he was injured.
This man, not five foot five by my reckoning, stood draped in a dirty, white robe that hung down far below his feet, dragging on the ground where it turned almost black from the abuse. His face was pale, some might say translucent, and heavily wrinkled, two small white-blue eyes peering over a white beard combed perfectly straight and traveling down to the middle of his chest. His tiny, pale, wrinkled hands poked out from the robe, one holding a small, hardwood branch he used to steady himself and the other grasping at his chest where a circle of bright red was increasing as I stood there, gawking.
He tried to speak but could not and Maye brought him inside, giving me a look with her giant, gray eyes that said, help or get out of the way. At first, I could only stand.
Once inside, the old man collapsed completely and we could not revive him for two days.
We put him in Jeremy’s bed and the children slept with us so he might have his privacy. Since Jeremy is only just seven, the bed seemed a bit small, but he fit well enough and there was nothing to be done about it.
Maye and I worked on his chest the best we could. He had been shot, clean through, in the back by some small caliber gun. The back seemed okay and closed up with only two stitches. But the front, where the bullet came out, was a mess. And his skin seemed paper-thin. As I sewed him up that first night, afraid he might die under my hand, I tried to be as dainty as any man could be. I lost track of the stitches, many inside and many out, and when I was done I collapsed next to him in Marianne’s bed.
When I woke the next morning, the snowstorm had begun. The flakes were big and thick, so much so the children caught them on their tongue as they fell out of the sky. They built five snowmen lickety split from the foot of new snow on the ground, the likeness of us and the old man. Jeremy begged and begged to go find a hill they might sled, but I said no, for which I’m glad. By that afternoon the foot of snow had risen to waist-high on me and up to Jeremy’s chest.
We were pretty well snowed in by that night, and on the second night, when the old man finally woke, I could no longer open the door to the outside, nor would I want to. But we had firewood inside for several days, even a week, and the snow had somewhat insulated our little cabin, making it warm like an igloo, so I did not panic.
We had all retired to the main room for dinner when I heard his voice, an almost female voice, like a grandmother might sound, from the other room.
“Hello?” he called. “Hellooooo.”
We all jumped up together. He was sitting in the bed, holding the blanket Maye had given him up to his neck, looking modest and meek. And again, I felt a dark strength within him.
“Helloooo,” he said again, looking at us and smiling through a perfect set of snow-white teeth. “You be the saviors of this old heart?” He tapped his mangled chest, the black stitches criss-crossing half-hazard like a child had drawn them there.
“Aye, that is me,” I said. “Not pretty, but I think I got all the pieces back in place.” I smiled though I didn’t feel like smiling. Maye smiled as well, pinning her long, brown hair behind her in a makeshift bun and going fearlessly to his side. She poured him a cup of water and handed it to his shaking fingers.
“Please, have a drink,” she said. He took it gratefully and finished the whole of it in one draught. She refilled it and he drank that as well.
“Your kindness is boundless and foundless,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t know how to thank ye.”
And so the niceties went and when he felt well enough the next morning he joined us in the main room for breakfast dressed in clothes of mine which looked like a sack on his frame. I asked him, because my own vulgar curiosity could not contain itself and because he had not offered any information, how he came to be bleeding from a gunshot on our front porch. He eyed me with my direct question, his stare palpable on the skin of my face, thick and dark. But then he smiled kindly and laughed.
“There are hunters in this wood,” he said. “They are careless with their aim. I was making my way through the thickest forest, hoping to reach a clearing where I might find my bearings. I imagine the man was far away because I didn’t hear the explosion of the gun until the damage was well done and over. I tried to cry for his aid but he did not hear me, or did not care to admit he had shot an old man.”
“Probably the Smithies down the ridge,” Maye said. “They get hungry early in the winter and don’t take much time to measure what they’ve got in their sights.”
I nodded, but the old man hadn’t answered the part of the question I most wanted to know.
“Why were you here?” I asked.
Again he looked at me. This time the cloud on his face was unmistakable, even Maye seemed to shiver from it.
“I was here,” he began, the smile gone from his face. “Because I lost my way. I come through here every year, but never this far south. I got misplaced, maybe in my age, and once I was on this side of the mountain, there was no getting back. I had to come through. I am sorry.”
“Why are you sorry,” I asked.
“You need to leave me here,” he said. “Get off the mountain now before it’s too late. But don’t take me with you. I must stay here.”
“You want us to leave our home to you and scuttle off the mountain?” I asked.
“We’ve only just settled here,” Maye said.
“You did me a kindness and I am trying to return the gift. If you do as I say you will escape the wrath of the storm. If you do not, I will not be responsible for your demise. I can tell you no more.”
With that he left us, stunned, to our breakfast and returned to Jeremy’s bed.
A fever took him that afternoon and he did not recover.
He is there, in Jeremy’s bed, sweating and shaking as the snow builds higher and higher outside. Soon, an escape from the house will be impossible.
Maye and I have decided to leave the home. We are going to leave him here because we cannot carry him out, small as he is, and we would all surely die with the burden. So we have brought the fire to a crisp blaze and made him as comfortable as possible. Marianne is crying, but I care more for their lives than this stranger and cannot abide her tender heart.
Once out on the roof we see nothing but white. The snow falls so heavily my feet are nearly invisible. I take the hand of my trusting wife and she has tied a rope to each of our children and we leave the chimney and the cabin roof’s slight peak, and head in the direction that should lead us down the mountain.
One hundred yards from our home the storm ends. It ends like a wall has been placed to keep it at bay. The snow is like and icy mountain and I can see bare dirt just a few feet ahead. We all run down the hill. I look up and see blue sky between gray and white clouds. And down the mountain I can see almost all the way to the town.
When I turn around I see the white, menacing storm over our cabin, burying it. I don’t understand, but I am too happy to pause. We rush down the slope and I feel the darkness of the old man fade behind me.
That was more than a year ago. When the old man died the storm disappeared. And now, it is nearly a new year and the rains won’t drop, the cold snap hasn’t hit and no snow falls from the sky. People in the town say it’s an unusual winter.
But I know the truth.
One of the Smithies shot Old Man Winter last November and the snow is not coming back.
Thanks for reading, off to write!