Rose was thirteen, living with her parents and eleven-year-old brother Pete in Worcester when the blizzard of 1978 hit. Her father, a maintenance worker at Saint Vincent’s Hospital made it home before the fast moving storm stranded motorists in drifts throughout the county. For a week, the four of them hunkered down in their bungalow with candles, blankets, and board games. They ventured out to shovel intermittently though their efforts hardly made any difference.
Forty years, and many blizzards later, Rose brewed her own stone soup in the kitchen of her duplex, a semi-detached house on the edge of the state forest in Barre—a small town twenty miles west of Worcester. Forecasters were predicting a full-blown nor’easter so she’d left work early. Her job as Barre’s Assistant Town Accountant allowed her this flexibility. She rarely used it since she didn’t have children, and no longer had aging parents to care for, but she appreciated it on snow days.
As she rummaged through the refrigerator, her phone buzzed. A familiar number flashed. It was her elderly neighbor Cecelia’s daughter.
“Hi, Rose. How are you?” Angela sounded breathless.
“I’m fine. I left work early today. I looked in on your mom.”
“She didn’t pick up when I called. I was worried. Thank you.”
“She was tired. She’s probably napping. Will you take her to your house to ride out the storm?”
“I can’t, Rose. I’m working the three to eleven shift at the hospital tonight. The boys are at their dad’s. Could you look in on her from time-to-time?”
“Of course. I’m making soup. I’ll bring her some.”
Cecelia, recently turned eighty, had been living on the other side of Rose’s duplex for ten years, moving in shortly after Rose’s mother died. In a neighborhood of cookie-cutter 1950’s duplexes—a long-ago rural development project—the neighbors looked out for each other. Good-natured and grandmotherly, Cecelia was a favorite. For years, parents had been sending their teenagers over to mow her lawn, rake her leaves, and shovel her walk. If Rose was home when they worked, she always slipped them some cash. As Cecelia’s closest neighbor, Rose checked in on her after work most days and occasionally picked up groceries. Cecelia made tea and entertained Rose with stories about her life.
Shortly after World War II, at nineteen, Cecelia had embarked on a brief career as an opera-singer, appearing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Her voice was as large as she was petite. When Rose first heard a recording of Cecelia as a young soprano singing Bizet’s Habanera, she was bowled over. She was particularly impressed because her own musical career had started and ended with a stint as the worst third clarinet in her junior high school band.
Cecelia gave up her dream of an opera career to marry Charles Coyne, an Army/Air Force pilot; a hero shot down in Hungary and rescued by Italian resistors at the end of the war. Seeking a quiet life after that, Charlie became a banker and married Cecelia, the love of his life. A good provider, and a steady husband and father, he supported her return to school after Angela was born. In response to Angela’s challenges with reading, Cecelia became an educational psychologist and developed a groundbreaking assessment that identified learning disabilities in children. After that, she travelled the country giving lectures—and sang only for herself as she did housework, or for friends upon their frequent, always welcome, requests.
Since Charlie was a hiker, camper, and mountain climber, Cecelia and Angela—a tall, dark-haired child who took after her father—joined him in those endeavors. Cecelia would regale Rose with her tales of their outdoor adventures, then shake her head, wave a mottled hand saying— “ Oh, but that’s all ancient history now.” Charlie had died some years back.
After Rose pulled tins of diced tomatoes and broth from her battered cabinets, she put on music and was soon swaying to the Eurythmics, belting out Sweet Dreams as she chopped celery, carrots, and onions and tossed them into a sizzling pan. Though she’d never be eighteen again, she enjoyed the music that brought it all back. Her party ended when the can-opener sputtered and stalled. She banged it with a mallet, unplugged and plugged it in again, but to no avail.
Throwing on a sweater, she stepped outside and crossed the front stoop from her side of the duplex to Cecelia’s. It was only three o’clock and already dark. As usual, the door was unlocked. A book on her lap, glasses halfway down her nose, Cecelia was napping in her blue upholstered chair. Across from her the television blared Dr. Phil. His shiny palette wavered and flashed in distorted images across the old woman’s smudged lenses. Rose decisively shut him off.
Cultured and restrained, Cecelia was the opposite of Dr. Phil—from a generation and culture more reserved than either his or Rose’s. Perhaps she’d chosen to study psychology in response to that; and maybe that was why she’d been so good at it. People often chose occupations that fit their personalities. Rose herself had chosen accounting. Numbers were her salvation. A whiz at creating budgets, auditing financial records, analyzing expenditures, and obligation rates, Rose found a niche. She’d worked for Bob Wilson, Barre’s Town Accountant, for nearly twenty years, harboring no ambition for promotion. She never wanted to manage other people so the situation suited them both.
After Rose tucked a blanket around Cecelia’s legs, she tiptoed into the kitchen. It was laid out like hers but had marble countertops and fresh, white cabinets, courtesy of Angela. After she found the can-opener, she crouched to pet Cleo, Cecelia’s enormous, tattered cat. Cleo lifted her chin for a deeper scratch, delighting Rose who liked Cleo but never knew what mood she’d find her in.
When Cleo sidled away, Rose stood up and walked over to the front door, pondering whether to lock it. Deciding it wasn’t necessary, she flicked on a few more lights, and left Cecelia a note saying she’d stop by later.
Cecelia wasn’t sure whether it was the quiet or her dream that woke her. In the dream, rain hammered the house. Leaks sprang from her ceiling—so many that she couldn’t keep up with them. And Charlie was nowhere to be found no matter how emphatically she called for him. She woke up sweating and threw the blanket off her legs. Noting the time, four o’clock, and how dark it already was, she stood up, stretched, and shuffled into the kitchen.
Her answering machine, an old-fashioned contraption connected to her landline, was blinking. She pressed the button, settling herself on a kitchen chair. Angela had left two messages—she was working the night shift. Cecelia should call her if she needed anything. Rose had left a message too, and a note saying she’d stop by.
Twisting a lock of her shoulder-length, snow-white hair around a finger Cecelia listened to her last message. The caller said he was from the Internal Revenue Service. He accused her of cheating on her taxes; instructed her to call him back to arrange payment or face jail. Angela had warned her about this scam, but the message unnerved her none-the-less. She deleted it then speed-dialed her daughter. They talked for a few minutes, each reassuring the other they were fine. Angela’s low, soothing voice calmed Cecelia. Afterwards, she called Rose. When Rose didn’t answer, she turned her attention to Cleo, asleep by the stove. She stroked the cat’s head, picked up her dish, and walked to the counter. Humming Memories, she slipped the plastic scoop into the tub of Meow Mix, and dropped some into Cleo’s bowl. The cat purred and stretched, rubbing against Cecelia’s legs before picking at her dinner.
After turning on the radio and hearing the weather report, Cecelia decided to walk down the street to borrow a bag of ice melt from her neighbors, the Gentry’s. Joe Gentry, a tall, bearded fellow who could build or fix anything, managed a Home Depot store in nearby Leominster. The Gentry’s were always well supplied for emergencies, and Mary Gentry, a loquacious homemaker, was invariably happy when Cecelia stopped by. It wasn’t snowing hard yet, and Cecelia craved fresh air. The ice-melt would be a gift for Rose, who probably hadn’t had time to think of it. Cecelia sat down, pulled on her boots, then jacket and gloves, and set off.
Rose’s soup was done by five, just as snow began to fall in earnest. Dizzying smells wafted through the kitchen. Her snow anxiety had been constructive. She’d baked cookies and made soup. She’d swept the cobwebs from the corners of her five small rooms. Her mother’s old oak table and chairs glowed with Lemon Pledge. Candles, matches, and a flashlight stood at the ready on her nightstand.
Satisfied that all was in order, Rose poured half of the soup into a second pot, placed half the cookies in a Tupperware container, and stepped out her front door, across the stoop, and back into Cecelia’s house. The television remained off but the old woman’s chair was empty and the blanket was on the floor along with her book. When Rose stepped into the kitchen, she nearly tripped over Cleo, who rubbed against her legs, mewling. She stroked the cat before standing and tapping at the bedroom door. When Cecelia didn’t answer, she turned the doorknob and entered. The bed, carefully made, was empty. Cecelia’s shoes were scattered but otherwise the room was neat.
Passing back through the living room, Rose noted as she often did, that Cecelia’s furniture was more up-to-date than hers was. Angela had outfitted the place well. Rose’s examination of the front hall closet confirmed that Cecelia’s boots and coat were missing. Peering out the back door, she spotted footprints in the snow, and some scattered birdseed. Cecelia must have gone out to fill the feeders near the path into the woods. A pair of cardinals had been visiting lately. She probably wanted to make sure they had enough to eat given the storm.
Concerned about her neighbor, Rose returned home, put the food away, then bundled up in her warmest hiking clothes. She knew how dangerous these storms could be. Trudging from the duplex to the edge of the woods, she arrived at the feeders. They were full. Believing she knew where Cecelia would go, she continued into the woods. When she reached the hillside overlooking a pond where they sometimes bird-watched, she paused, tuning in for a clue as to Cecelia’s whereabouts. The only sound was the needling of ice in the trees. She scanned the ground but didn’t see more seeds. Snow was beginning to cover everything—whitening familiar textures, scents, and sounds. She recalled her first winter living here, near the forest—how delighted she’d been at the way the world seemed so pure and promising in the aftermath of a blizzard.
Rose stood for a few minutes exulting in the chaotic pinging of snow crystals against her cheeks. Shutting her eyes, head back, she let snow pile on her lashes. When she opened them, the flakes leapt and melted into her eyes and she looked at the scene around her anew. Her old friend, Louis Inouk, had taught her this trick. What had seemed borderless and white, now took on hazy shape. Some white was purple; some was blue. Soft curves marked the horizon. Sparrows darted about, pecking at bare ground beneath a pine the snow hadn’t yet obliterated. She tuned her sense of smell to the cold. No other scent interfered—no distant fire, no decaying vegetation. Rose could almost hear Louis saying this would surely be a bad storm.
Feeling the first pricks of fear, Rose decided to head to another spot where she thought Cecelia might go. She carefully made her way down the hill. When she got to the edge of the pond, she tested the ice before cutting across it. On the other side, Rose checked her phone to see whether she still had service. The battery was low. A weather alert had popped up with a comparison of this storm to the blizzard of 1978. A lump rose in Rose’s throat. She’d lived through many blizzards since then, but none so devastating.
Alternately sweating and shivering inside her heavy clothes, Rose assessed the various entryways into the forest from the other side of the pond. Everything looked different in the deepening dusk. The blues and purples on the hill had melted into grays—some of them so close to white she felt vertigo descending. She appreciated the black of tree trunks and the occasional skittering critter as she picked her way through the forest.
Cecelia stepped carefully down the sidewalk to the Gentrys’ duplex. The doorbell’s cheery rendition of Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here sounded before the door opened and Mary Gentry peered out, flipping on the porch light.
“Cecelia! What are you doing out in this weather?”
“I hoped to borrow some ice melt.”
“Of course. You should have called. I’d have sent Patrick down with it.”
“I wanted the air. We’ll be stuck inside soon enough.”
“Stay and have a cup of tea with me. Patrick will walk you home after.”
They chatted over the tea while Mary prepared dinner. About 6:00, she packed up Cecelia’s ice-melt and called up the stairs for Patrick. A dark-haired, bespectacled teen bounded down, apparently ready for a break from homework. “Hi Mrs. Coyne,” Patrick greeted Cecelia as he pulled on his coat. After the women said their goodbyes, he took her arm and they navigated the slippery sidewalk to her house together.
It was snowing hard, and Cecelia turned on the outside spotlight, watching from the front door as Patrick swept the snow from the stoop and walk. She stepped away to hang up her coat and take off her boots. Noting the cookies and soup that Rose had left, she dialed her number to thank her but got no answer. She returned to the front door.
“When you finish here, Patrick, would you knock on Rose’s door and ask her to call me? She isn’t answering her phone.”
“Sure. I’ll do it now.”
A few minutes later he was back.
“Sorry, Mrs. Coyne, no one’s home next door.”
“Hmmm, that’s odd. Well, thanks Patrick. Here are some cookies to take home.”
Cecelia shut then locked the door. Perhaps Rose was dropping off food for other neighbors. She doubted her friend would have travelled far in such conditions. Systematically, Cecelia began calling the neighbors.
Shaking off her anxiety, Rose walked faster into the white out, making a beeline for the swamp maple tree where summer hikers often picnicked. Enormous in girth and height, the tree was a landmark she’d recognize even in poor visibility. She always calmed down when she sat beneath it, believing that friendly spirits lived there—spirits of people she’d loved and who’d loved her. Cecelia might have headed there.
Murmuring something akin to prayers, Rose moved confidently at first. She believed herself charmed. Even encased in ice and snow, Rose believed the forest would provide for her as it did for the foxes and bears, squirrels and coyotes. When she came upon a grove of pines towering like cathedrals a hundred feet above her, Rose recognized them as the Trees of Peace that her grandfather had pointed out on childhood trips to his cabin in upstate New York. Papa had been a storyteller. He wove tales inside of tales inside of other tales. Rose never knew where one story ended and the next began. These trees with their massive trunks, sprawling branches, needles, and roots were like that too—brushing and bending, curling and curving around each other, forming shelter. She heard Papa’s husky voice coaxing her to stop, to rest in this safe dwelling at the still center of the world. When she laid down, her woes dimmed as the air steadied and settled around her.
Resting, Rose mused about how fortunate she was to live in this clean, quiet kingdom. As a child, living in the city, she’d thought it was normal to collect discarded needles in the street; to giggle with her friends when Mr. Fancy, a bow-legged man from the May Street projects peed on the sidewalk, and leered as they passed him on their way to school. The memory made her queasy.
Pete had enjoyed the city. He skateboarded at Elm Park with a gang of boys. Sometimes they picked pockets and split the proceeds. He avoided the worst of his friends’ criminal activities, aspiring to be a doctor one day. Occasionally their Dad took them to St. Vincent’s with him, introducing them to nurses and doctors. He hoped they might pursue medical professions. While Pete was enthusiastic about the prospect, Rose was not. Hospital smells sickened her. A two-week stint as a candy striper sealed the deal.
When she spent most of her volunteer hours gagging in the bathroom, even Dad gave up on the dream. When Rose started getting into trouble at fifteen, running with a fast crowd, her parents decided to flee to the country. Though unhappy at first, Rose soon delighted in the release from the cramped quarters of the city. She liked the unpretentious people in their new neighborhood, and was glad she no longer had to jealously eye and despise the college students and young professionals who strutted around the city. She’d stayed put in Barre ever since—even now visiting Pete, a dermatologist in Boston, as infrequently as possible.
Rose believed the move to Barre had saved her life. To start, she found Papa again, right away, his spirit being one of those that inhabited the swamp maple. She also made friends with the wider forest—its flora and fauna, brooks and streams. Most important, Barre was where she and Louis Inouk found each other. He was a lonely seventeen-year-old Alaskan transplant. She was a chaotic Woo-rat—also a recent transplant. Louis said he loved her at first sight. She’d been fifteen, streaking down Worcester Road in Hubbardston with friends for a skinny-dip in Asnacomet Pond. “You moved so fast,” he said, “your skin was so pale; your hair on fire. I thought you were a shaman.”
She smiled at the recollection. Her auburn hair had faded to gray, and she cut it short now. Her body hadn’t changed much though. She remained slender and athletic and took some pride in that.
As Rose rested in the pine grove, she conjured some Inuit words for snow that Louis had taught her. She’d memorized them once, long ago. Muruaneq, she recalled, meant soft, deep snow— like the snow piling up outside of her shelter. But that seemed too gentle a word for what was happening. Pirrelag meant to blizzard severely. She feared that was the better word.
When she stood up and stomped her feet to stay warm, she noticed that some trees had taken on shapes alternately threatening and beseeching. Their arms reached up to the sky, opened and swayed, then dropped under gales like weighted fists. She could not make out where the trees ended and the sky began. Snow-laden branches looked like buffaloes stampeding toward heaven. Some looked like witches on brooms; others like mad dogs—faces cracking, melting, and morphing. She looked for relief to the thin silver birches—the trees next to her firmly rooted in earth—but it didn’t help. They danced in place—a troupe of devils drawing down wrath, tempting lightning and thunder to join the fray.
Rose knew she must think carefully, act smart, walk faster, if she was going to save herself, never mind Cecelia. Her fear veered into panic that she’d overestimated her capabilities as she had Louis’s so long ago. She’d believed he was strong and indestructible when he was neither.
Leaving the pine grove, Rose recalled the first time Louis spoke to her; when she, Dee Perez and Beth Cole had emerged naked and laughing from their swim across the pond. His voice was deep and low. He had an accent she didn’t recognize. Built more sturdily than the other boys, he seemed older, and she’d immediately understood by the way he moved among them that he was as new to the place as she was.
“Your clothes,” he said, handing them to her as the other boys whistled and catcalled.
“You really want me to put them on?” She laughed. She was drunk—although even drunk she was wary of him. He had a commanding presence.
“Who are you? You’re too serious. This is a party you know.”
“I’m Louis,” he said, “now put them on.”
After that, they became friends. He’d moved from Alaska with his father who took a trucking job to earn money to send home. Louis came with him so he could go to a better school—get an education and make something of himself.
Louis won Rose over with stories about his childhood on an island in the Bering Strait. He’d been a boy like any boy there. He ate ice cream cones made from snowballs wrapped in fresh whale skin. He played baseball in the cemetery where bodies were frozen above ground on the top of the tallest hill. Louis would grab a femur for a bat. His sister would take a skull for a ball. Barre might have been the country to Rose, but it was the big city to Louis.
As outsiders they didn’t fit easily into the high school’s social scene. They often spent their free time together. A master of the outdoors, Louis taught Rose to hike and fish. Together they learned to identify the plants and woodland creatures in the state forest. For years, through high school, community college, and first jobs, she and Louis were nearly inseparable—friends with benefits. Rose believed that was the term today’s kids would use for them.
She shivered inside her ice-encrusted clothes as she remembered those years. She and Louis had been on-again, off-again lovers—quick to argue, quick to make up—claiming no exclusive attachment to one another, but nearly always exclusively attached. She was high-strung and reckless. In retrospect, Louis was too, though she hadn’t seen him that way. To her he seemed steady, sure of himself. One day, in their early twenties, he surprised her by proposing. She declined, claiming she liked things the way they were; that he was too good for her. In truth, she was growing bored with him. She was tiring of his stories about Little Diomede, and had started to resent rather than respect and share in his longing to go back there, to see his favorite place—the river descending into white land like a black silk ribbon as far as a person could see.
Rose tromped through the storm, engulfed by her recollections. The end of their relationship had been sudden. Initially, following his proposal, they’d continued as if nothing had changed. Then, one night after partying at a friend’s house, when he was driving her home, Louis’s car spun out, sailing over black ice as if possessed. It swung in two full circles nearly running head on into a truck before it tumbled over an embankment and crashed.
Rose woke up at St. Vincent’s two days later. She’d broken an arm, and lost the vision in her left eye. Louis was gone. The police said he’d walked away from the scene. They didn’t know if he’d been hurt. Rose never saw or heard from him again.
Now, limping, her feet frostbitten, Rose was too cold, too tired, to fight the fear that she was going to die out here having once again misjudged everything. Louis would have known what to do. Too late she understood how deeply knowledgeable he’d been about so many things. She’d been sure she’d learned all she could from him about the forest, weather, even men. Why had she allowed him to disappear so easily, so completely, after the crash? In fact, she’d been content, even relieved, to let him go.
Rose began to hear voices rising and falling amidst the howling wind. A boy’s voice, maybe Pete’s, called olly olly in come free over and over. Cecelia sang the Habanera. And she heard Louis’s singsong voice, so much like Papa’s, telling a rambling story though she couldn’t make out the words.
She followed the sounds until she nearly stumbled over a lump huddled beside a boulder—a large rock she and Cecelia often sat on near the swamp maple. Relieved that she’d found her way to a familiar landmark, Rose wondered if the lump was a body, if it was Cecelia’s. She’d never noticed how tiny the old woman was—like a little girl. How could she sleep when it was so cold? Cecelia wasn’t singing anymore, and Rose thought maybe it was only Pete’s olly olly in come free that she’d heard. She felt confused. Words—foreign languages, her own language, English, so easily twisted—had always been harder than numbers for Rose to understand.
Curled beside the boulder, falling asleep and waking up again, another of Louis’s words drifted into her consciousness – qarrtsiluni.
“It means sitting together in the dark,” he said, “thinking together about beautiful things; waiting for something to happen.”
That had been the night before the accident. She felt tears forming. Fearful they’d freeze on her skin, Rose forced her eyes open and was surprised that she could see clearly—like she had before the crash. Still, she sensed more than saw the animal that hovered over her. It was a deer—not a fawn but not quite adult. The eyes, large and soft, stared straight into hers before it twitched and bolted. Coonhounds bayed in the distance.
Rose felt the dogs swarm her before she saw a lean, late-thirties face swimming above hers. The man pressed a thumb against her wrists, her neck. He called for help; murmured to the dogs as he leashed them. She wondered whether he was real or a phantom from one of Papa’s fairy tales—the boy abandoned by his family, then succored by wolves until he became one.
Rose couldn’t stay with any thought long because the man talked incessantly. He rambled on, sounding like Louis, like Papa, with story after story in his gravelly voice. He told her things she already knew over and over so she wouldn’t lose them; wouldn’t forget.
“We found you just in time. Good thing your friend sounded the alarm. We had a devil of a time finding you. You’ll be all right. Stay with me okay? Everything’s going to be okay.”
The next day, Rose woke up at St. Vincent’s, still shivering, overcome with a sense of déja-vu. She wriggled her fingers, her toes. Some were bandaged but they seemed to be working. She ached all over. Bits and pieces of the day’s events filtered back. Before worry about Cecelia flooded her, Angela swept in.
“Ah, you’re awake. How do you feel?”
“Awful. Your mother?”
“My mother? She’s fine. She’s the one who called for help when she realized you were gone. You had us terribly worried, Rose. What were you thinking going out in that?”
“Oh, God.” Rose looked at her bandaged hands. “I have to call work.”
“It’s okay. Everything’s closed today. The storm was bad.”
Angela checked her dressings then brushed her cheek.
“Get some sleep,” she said. “We can talk later.”
Rose rustled around for a comfortable position. A constellation of lights and unintelligible numbers blinked and burred on the machinery monitoring her heart rate, oxygen level, blood pressure. As she drifted into sleep, the deer from the woods appeared. It hovered over her with uncanny clarity, looking straight at her before crashing away as it had that night. “Come back!” she shouted, but her voice was a mewl, a barely perceptible thread of sound amidst the thick silence. The deer sailed further and further away the harder she chased—her feet and legs numb, as if purposefully carrying her nowhere, denying her entry into a world that might-have-been. Rose watched the animal vanish into a brilliant gloom of ice smoke, trees, and pasture as her hands—curled, frozen—struggled to rise and wave.
Mary Beth Hines writes from her home in Massachusetts following a career as a communications and outreach program manager. Her poetry, short fiction, and creative non-fiction pieces appear in journals such as Brilliant Flash Fiction, Crab Orchard Review, Literary Mama, Madcap Review, and Nixes Mate Review among many others. Her debut poetry collection was published by Kelsay Books on November 16, 2021. Connect with her at www.marybethhines.com.
Story © 2021, Mary Beth Hines
Photo © 2021, Dave Mullen