“One must have a mind of winter”- from Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man
I lift my bare foot from the boot, its fur lining like spent cat tails, and lower it into the snow bank, so my toes are buried. The burn of ice, prickly and electric, the shock I’ve gotten when I hold onto the stove and open the refrigerator at the same time. Why is this sensation so enticing? How long can I stand it? My foot’s back in the boot. I walk along the sidewalk that leads to our front steps and go inside.
But I’m out in the snow again, years later. Mid-winter, sky the blue of black, a few stars, and my parents inside the house watching TV. It’s subzero. Mercury in the thermometer, like most of us, settling in toward something absolute but unreachable. Wearing my dad’s parka, I’ve shoveled part of the walk, a sloped section sheltered by a hedgerow of honeysuckle bushes. The parka hood is trimmed with fur. If I zip it all the way, part of the hood closes up, so I’ve got a snout like some walrus with dense whiskers or an upright anteater that’s adapted to cold weather. It’s warm in the parka: down-filled, soft as a bed, comforting as a bath. I stop just outside the front door and lie down in the snow near what would be a petunia bed in summer, the porch light shining through lattice work on the house down to me. It’s still—still as a top suddenly halted. Can you dream your future? Can you see beyond your own body and the almost-snow-angel it makes when you lie down? I’m there longer than I planned, motionless. My lack of fear startles me.
And then it’s a different winter and I’m in those tire tread sandals my brother brought me from Mexico and a vest he got me that looks like a blanket with broad bands of gray and green and black ribbon trim. Oh, and a suede hat with fringe. It’s the color of hot tea, the suede supple as bread but a bit coarse like the crusts just toasted. He’s home on leave from basic training in the Navy; he’s been to Mexico and bought me these things. I wonder where the treads have been, what roads they’ve touched, what cities they’ve visited—certainly more exotic than anywhere I’ve been.
I can’t stand it; I’ve got to show someone. I put a jacket over my new clothes and go out in the snow and walk to the corner. It’s busy there, one of three main roads that comes up from downtown into our neighborhood. Someone will be there. And someone is. A kid from a block away. He’s older than me; he’s creepy but for some reason what he thinks matters to me. Do I think he’s some kind of artist?
I’m on the corner, near the fire hydrant and stop sign and then, like a jackhammer, he kicks snow onto my feet, my toes exposed because of those sandals that I loved that my brother bought. Someone has got to see them. Then it’s snow and snow covering them; it looks and feels like shaved ice and my feet turn burgundy in what I imagine or remember. And it hurts, as if white ground wasps repeatedly pierce me with their stingers which seem like the stinger of the kid from the next block and it is. Then there’s another kid walking toward this scene; he’s from the end of my street and I’ve done nothing to him. He’s my age. Suddenly he, too, is trashing my feet with cold. Stinging, stinging over and over. What have I done?
Many nights I sleep at my grandmother’s next door. I wear a jacket over my night gown and robe, my bare feet in loose suede snow boots lined with fur. Her front door’s attached to a music box that plays Bless This House when you open it. I sleep in a high bed in the pink bedroom, a floral print bedspread, a matching floral cloth on a table. Only once do I stick my foot in the snow on the way home. Only once.
Then it’s a frenzy of kids kicking snow on my feet and I feel as frozen as my toes. I don’t want to move; I want someone to see my sandals, thick rubber soles that’ve rolled over and over Acapulco or Mazatlan or Tijuana, that have traveled farther than I have, which is just to the end of the street where I think someone will stop and look and marvel at what my brother has brought me. But I’m in a squall, standing in a blizzard that ends at my ankles. I want it to quit before I walk away. How long can I stand it? These boys keep kicking faster and faster, digging and digging into the snow with their feet. Why do they want to bury me?
Finally, I cannot take the cold anymore. I turn and go past the hedgerow of honeysuckle bushes, the sidewalk that leads to my grandmother’s house where I’ve slept so many times. I keep going, past the spot where I took my foot out of my boot, past the spot where I once lay in the snow and kept still for a moment. I try to forget all the places my new sandals have been, that what I am wearing is a gift that makes people behave in ways I don’t understand. And I learn why I have to go inside. Reluctantly, that’s what I do.
Nancy Devine teaches high school English in Grand Forks, North Dakota where she lives.She co-directs the Red River Valley Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project. Her poetry, short fiction and essays have appeared in online and print journals.
Thank you so much for the lovely compliment, Nathan.
There is so much to like in here but for me, the perfect line is “Mercury in the thermometer, like most of us, settling in toward something absolute but unreachable.” Marvellous.