I can’t tolerate the whiteness of snow.
I can’t look at my face in the mirror.
I’ve grown a beard so I don’t have to shave, and fewer friends and strangers recognize me.
I can’t read the newspaper or watch television for fear there’ll be another story.
People keep coming up. I can’t stand to be touched, even to shake hands. Women phone and ask me to dinner. I don’t go out. When there’s a knock at the door—even if I know it’s just someone selling something—I get upset.
It’s been over a month and I can’t eat or rest. I’m afraid to sleep, afraid to dream. I know something inside me is wrong but I don’t know what it is or how to fix it or if it can be fixed.
I feel like the clock I broke as a child. I’d wind it up, then laugh as I watched the hands go crazy, quickly spinning at random to the different hours. I’ve wondered if a murderer feels this way after he’s killed someone and got away with his crime.
Sometimes I think there’s a God and I’m being punished. Then I feel better, that I’m making progress, that there’s a sense to what happened and it’s important to suffer. It’s worse when I think that things just happen and that’s all, just the bare facts. The idea of something organized and intricate, but meaningless, makes me physically sick.
I keep seeing everything in clear, perfect detail—in my head it plays over and over, like a documentary film that won’t end.
It always starts with me, nervous, watching the lowering December sky from the bed in the cabin outside Tahoe. I’ve been awake for an hour, listening to Monique’s low, even breaths, staring out the window at the whitish-gray clouds building just above the pines.
I was thinking of snow, or the chance of snow, of aircraft visibility and landing regulations. I was thinking of Claire, when Monique sighed and nuzzled my ear.
"Good morning," she whispered huskily. "It is morning, isn’t it?" Her warm face burrowed at my turned shoulder.
"No," I answered. "It’s two days ago, you just got here."
"Oh," she murmured sleepily, "I wish it was." Then she giggled, wrapping a leg around mine. "Mmm," she said. "Nice to see you again."
"And you," I was supposed to say. "Might I see more?"
That was our little joke. But I looked out the window.
"I don’t want to go," Monique said. "I like it here. More all the time." She slipped an arm around my waist.
"Your family will be worried about you," I said. I studied the clouds dissolving in a low, shapeless mist. In my head, I tried to hold back the snow. "You’re already late."
"What’s Christmas without you?" she complained, rubbing her chin against my shoulder.
"We’ll be together again, after New Year’s," I lied, pulling away.
"I’ll call them and say I got snowed in," Monique said. She pressed her body against my back and ran an open hand across my chest. Monique’s hand, I thought. Not Claire’s.
"No," I said. "You can’t do that. I’ve got to work."
"Mr. Corporate Attorney," she teased. She gripped my arm.
"I won’t be," I said, "if I don’t hit the books."
"Don’t be a Scrooge," she said.
"You’ve got to get going," I said. I sat up. "I think it really is going to snow."
Since daylight, the clouds had bellied out. Now the air was still, no pine bough moved, no bird.
"Come on," I said, throwing back the covers. "Go take your shower. When you come out, I’ll have the fire going."
"Oh, all right," Monique said. She made a face. "But you’re still a big
She got out of bed and stood a moment, pouting, naked, before she turned. She dipped her shoulder, her long brown hair swinging, as she threw out her hip in defiance and moved toward the bathroom.
She was pretty, but already I was tired of her. I’d met her in September, in the City, at Charlie’s. How different Monique was from Claire, everything about her was different. I’d realized that morning Claire was the one for me. I suddenly knew it. I was sure.
I started breakfast. Monique came out warm and bright and dressed in tailored gray wool slacks and a tight peach sweater, with her long auburn hair dried and richly glowing. I felt confused, almost sorry. I tipped the skillet and pushed the fluffy eggs onto the plates. I took the bacon and buttered toast from the warmer oven and served her in front of the fire.
"How long will it take me?" Monique asked. She pursed her lipsticked mouth as she set down her coffee. It was as if I wasn’t there, that already she’d forgotten me.
"Let’s see," I said. I studied the old ’50s sunburst clock above the mantel.
"If you start now, you’ll make the Grapevine by two. Another two hours and you’ll be home." I wanted her out. Claire was coming.
"I better go," she said. She glanced quickly toward the window. "I told a friend I might stop by on the way."
"Yeah," I said. Monique was selfish and sexy. That’s why I’d liked her. I felt ashamed. "I don’t want you to, but you’d better get going."
She pretended to start to clear the dishes but I said no, I’d do that, I wanted her to get an early start.
"If I didn’t know better," she teased, "I’d think you were rushing me out of here. Have you got a woman stashed in the cellar or something?"
"I wish I did," I said. "You make me remember what I’ve been missing."
"I bet you say that to all your guests."
"I would," I said, "if all my guests were you."
We’re even, I thought, as Monique’s eyes for a moment grew larger and darker and she stared at me.
On the deck I kissed her again, then once more after I’d taken her bag down
and slipped it into the Jag’s narrow jump seat.
"Remember," I said, leaning down to the window. "Take your time. Watch other
"I will," she said, raising her smooth face toward me. "But not as closely
as I watch you," she whispered.
She kissed me through the open window, then drove off down the bare hill, turning once to wave.
I waved back, watching the sleek low car grow shorter, rounder, like a single blue bead as it turned the final slope of scattered pines. Like a bead on a string of worry beads, I thought, the kind I’d seen old men running back and forth through gnarled fingers as they sat in stone doorways in Athens.
Elena, Joslyn, Brigitte. Monique. I breathed the fresh, chill air. I had my own beads and I enjoyed telling them. But as I looked up to examine the low gray sky I felt a shiver. Ah Claire, I thought, please come now. I love you. I climbed the steps to the cabin and cleared up the dishes, then had a cup of coffee and a cigarette in front of the fire. I opened both doors, front and back, to let the air rush through and wash away Monique’s scent. I rolled up the blankets and sheets from the bed and started the washer, then cleaned the bathroom. I pulled two long red hairs from the tub’s edge, and then one from the wool arm of the easy chair by the fire. I swept the floor, then checked the drainboards for earrings and hair clips. I wanted everything right for Claire.
When my eye decided the cabin was clean, the spartan lodgings of a neat, mature man in his late 20s living alone and studying hard for the California Bar, I built up the fire again, then turned back to the window.
The sky had lowered even more, pressing down against the sharp tips of the pines, against the roofs of neighboring cabins and the white clapboard general store down the road. The store’s outdoor lights were on already. I went into the kitchen.
The airport couldn’t tell me much. Yes, a plane could land now, the strip was clear. No, they couldn’t say, it would be hour by hour, depending on the front. Yes, all scheduled flights were still on, Tahoe was open. No, they could cancel any time.
I put down the phone, undressed, threw my clothes into the washer, first taking the blankets and pushing them into the dryer. Then I went into the bathroom and turned on the shower.
When I came out, freshly scrubbed and shaved, I saw it was snowing, the first fat light flakes swirling down in a funnel, so that near and far seemed confused, mixed up. My heart sank. As I watched at the window, the flying snow seemed to draw a curving script on the air, tracing brief transparent words that half gleamed for an instant and disappeared.
Claire . . .
Again I called the airport. The strip was open, the girl said, but any accumulation would close it. No, they didn’t snowplow, not during a storm. The runway would be dangerous, too icy. Yes, she had just checked, the flight from San Francisco was still on.
I thought I recognized her voice, so I said, "I’m sorry to bother you again. It’s just that my fiancee is trying to make it from the City. I guess I’m a little over-anxious."
"That’s a shame." She sounded more sympathetic. "I’ll do what I can," she said.
"Listen," I said, "thanks. It means a lot."
"Call any time," she said. "It’s no bother."
"I’m in your hands," I answered. "My name’s Mark."
She giggled. "I’m Judy."
I flirted when I was keyed up. I went into the main room and sat before the fire, watched the orange flames leaping, then the little blue flames that ate along the very edge of the log. I reached for the law book on the coffee table.
Contracts. Oral and written. Binding and non-binding. Depending on agreements. Implied. Have a tort?
I couldn’t study, my mind kept drifting off. I stared at the fire, the way the blue flames played like fingers across the pine’s dissolving bark. I’d build Claire a warm fire, then serve her hot chocolate. We’d curl up on the sofa. I glanced out the window again.
In the falling snow a St. Bernard chased a small black dog down the hill toward the white road where the asphalt still showed through the tire tracks. The Bernard’s big jaws opened and closed in barks I couldn’t hear, big puffs of smoke shot from its mouth, and smaller clouds from the black dog’s pointed little mouth. The snow softened everything. The cabin was warm, I was in the right spot.
And soon Claire would come.
I woke with a start, staring at the door, then scanning the room. I thought I’d lost Claire. I’d dreamed that Claire was here, in the bathroom getting ready for bed, just as Monique knocked at the door. The pass had closed,
Monique couldn’t get home. Or so she said.
I couldn’t tell what time it was from the color of the light. A steady snow fell in straight wet lines. I saw it was 4:30 by the shadowed clock. I got up and called the airport again.
"All flights are canceled." It was a recording, the voice of the girl I had talked to. Judy. "Traffic will resume dependent on inclement weather."
I dialed San Francisco. The phone rang and rang, then Claire’s roommate answered.
"Is this Shelly—"
"No, Shelly’s not here." It was a new girl, she was about to hang up.
"Wait," I said, "this is Mark, Claire’s boyfriend. Has she left for the airport?"
"She already left," the girl said shortly, "two hours ago."
"The airport’s snowed in up here," I said. "I’m in Tahoe. All the flights have been canceled."
"Well," said the girl. She had a high, peevish voice. She sounded bored. "So you want me to take a message, or what?"
"Tell her Mark called," I said. "Tell her to call me when she gets home."
"What’s your name?" I asked.
"Debbie," she said. Her voice softened just slightly.
"Thanks, Debbie," I said. "I was worried, when I didn’t hear from Claire." I waited.
"It’s snowing there?"
"You wouldn’t believe it. Just like White Christmas."
"Really?" she said. "That’s on tonight."
"I don’t have a TV. Why don’t you watch it for me?"
"Okay," she said. She sounded like she was smiling now.
"Tell me if Crosby gets the girl," I joked. "Send me a card."
"Okay," she said. "But I don’t have your address."
"I’ll send you a card," I said.
"All right," she said.
"Merry Christmas, Debbie."
"Merry Christmas, Mark."
Now Claire wouldn’t come. I felt something inside me turn over. My heart sped up. In the living room the fire popped.
I sat in the armchair. Now and then an orange coal sparked and fell from the log. So Monique could have stayed another night. Already I’d forgotten her. I thought about going down the hill for a pizza. There’d be people there, wanting to get out in the new, fresh weather.
But through the snow I could see that the beer signs in the parlor’s windows were dark. It was closed. Monique had got down the mountain just in time. She was probably in bed with her "friend." I built up the fire, then got a Pilsner from the refrigerator.
I had just poured the glass, holding it up to watch the fire through the rising bubbles—I was thinking how Monique was like a cat, how constantly she groomed herself, how she always looked out for Number One—when the phone rang. I jumped up, spilling some of the beer.
"Oh Mark, can you believe it?"
"It breaks my heart," she said. "I just got home from the airport. They
stopped all the planes about three."
"I know. The airport’s closed up here."
"They don’t know when the weather will clear," Claire said. "They’re saying
tomorrow afternoon, or the next day—"
"That’s lousy," I said, listening to her voice, the shape and texture of it.
It was like velvet. Ah Claire, I thought. "I wish you were here."
"Oh Mark, what about me?"
"Me more," I teased. "More than you."
"Wanna bet?" she said. "You’d lose."
"It’s a draw," I allowed. "I’m a lover, not a fighter."
"Debbie told me you called. You made a big hit. I think you’ve got another
"It’s the manner," I said. "Learned it in Contracts 101."
"The airport was a mess," Claire said. "They were trying to get some buses
organized, to start out at seven. Then the highway patrol closed I-80."
"They’ll have it plowed as soon as the snow stops," I said. "That’s a
"I thought about it," she said. "It’s six hours."
"What’s six hours," I said, "compared to a lifetime of bliss?"
"That sounds like a long weekend."
"You never read For Whom The Bell Tolls."
"Neither did you."
"I saw the movie. ‘Four days can be a lifetime.’"
"How’s that nursery rhyme go?" she giggled. "Oh, you know."
"You know," she said. "About Babylon."
"I don’t know it."
"‘How many miles to Babylon?/ Three score miles and ten. / Can I make it by
"‘Yes, and back again!’" We laughed as we said the last line together.
"Well," she said, "I’m going to wait."
"You are?" I rubbed my thumb against a knot in the varnished pine wall.
"I’m going to gamble," Claire said. "Try to fly up tomorrow."
"Whatever you want."
"Don’t be disappointed," she said. "You know I want to come, more than
anything. If the road hadn’t closed—"
"I know," I said. "It’s nobody’s fault."
"I’ll take the bus tomorrow if the flights are canceled."
"Okay," I said. "Let me know though, will you?"
"Have you got something planned?"
"I might tramp through the woods, try out the cross-country skis."
"I’ll call you," she said.
"See you soon," I said. "I love you, Claire." As I said it I knew I meant
"I love you too."
I drank my beer standing at the counter, looking at the polished grain of
the paneled wall, then set the glass down and turned, opening the
I quickly took out a wrapped t-bone, a head of lettuce, a tomato, and a
bottle of dressing, vinegar and oil.
"Who are the steaks for?" Monique had kidded. "Don’t I rate?"
"Who wants to cook when there’s other things to do?"
"You’re right." Monique had treated me to lasagna and chianti down the hill.
Monique had money. Monique had a lot of things. I imagined I could still smell her perfume as I unwrapped the steak. Monique was all right, not like Claire, but okay.
While the steak broiled and sputtered, I tossed the lettuce, then added the cut slices of winter tomato. The timer on the stove went off and I pulled out the steak. I salted and peppered it and reached for a wine glass from the cupboard.
I heard what sounded like a plane circling the ridge above the cabin. I went out onto the porch and opened the back door, but I could see nothing through the falling flakes bright in the porchlight. It was cold. I came back in and the floor shook. I thought it was the floor furnace kicking on. I needed to get the gas people to come out. The thermostat was touchy. Earlier, when I’d aired out the house, the thing had started up on its own. I glanced over at the control and saw it was off. Maybe it was a log truck passing by out front, risking a last dangerous run down the grade. I took my plate, a glass and the bottle of wine—Napa pinot noir I’d bought for Claire, Monique liked white wine—and set everything on the coffee table in front of the fire.
The steak was perfect, just right, with the center pink-red but not dark red. The salad was crisp. It was good, except I didn’t like eating alone. My mind wandered to my neighbor.
Two days ago, in the general store, I’d run into an attractive brunette in her mid-30s named Audrey Burns. After she’d asked me what I did, she’d joked that I could have saved her some money. She and her husband were getting a divorce. Her attorneys were taking it all. She lived just across the crease in the hill, along the other crest. Would I like to have a drink sometime? As soon as I got over the hump in the bookwork, I said. Soon. That night, standing with Monique on the deck, I’d seen Audrey’s light on. But tonight, when I’d stepped out back to look for the plane, I’d noticed that the large modern cabin was dark. I didn’t see Audrey’s car. I took another sip of wine, then finished the steak. For luck, for Claire, I crossed the knife and fork on the empty plate.
I turned from the fire and looked over toward the window. Then I saw I’d forgotten to make the bed for Claire. I saw the bare mattress and thought of Monique, of her shapely figure, her long hair falling down on her shoulders—this morning she’d wanted to make love and I hadn’t. I washed the dishes and lifted the folded sheets from on top of the dryer, then opened the dryer door and shook out the still warm blanket. With the blanket in my arms, again I stepped outside, but Audrey’s lights were still off.
Now there was no sound of a plane.
I made the bed, not tucking in the top sheet all the way, throwing back the bedspread. I thought about reading, or listening to the radio. It was still early.
I thought about putting on my boots and parka and walking across the snow to leave a note on Audrey’s door. Maybe she’d come home late. Alone. But I didn’t. I undressed, slipping my shirt on a hanger so I could wear it again tomorrow.
As I got ready for bed I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t get caught up, that I would sleep with Audrey if I wanted. After Claire and I were married, I planned to be faithful. But it might take a few years to become a junior partner. You needed money to marry.
I got in under the covers, then turned out the light. I watched the shadows cast by the fire play across the ceiling. Monique and I had lain looking at them last night, cozy and full of the lasagna we’d had for dinner. We took turns guessing what the shadows looked like, until they all looked like the same thing and we had turned and made love. Monique was pretty, sensual. Her family had money.
Monique, I thought, as I turned on my side, looking out the window at the snow floating down through the dark. Monique. But then, like a wheel, like a merry-go-round, my thoughts began to turn, to move on from Monique’s dark bead. Claire, I thought, Sweet Claire, then Audrey. Judy. Shelly, Debbie . .
In the middle of a dream of making love to Claire—-her plane had made it after all, a special rental, that was her plane I’d heard circling the ridge—I woke up. Someone was pounding at the door. Claire, I thought instantly, she was here after all. Then I thought I was still dreaming but the pounding got louder. Jumping up, in my underwear I ran quickly to the door, throwing it open to the chill.
I couldn’t believe it.
Cold and shaking and bundled up in her Western parka she stood in the open doorway, her lifted face shadowed under the cabin’s eave. I reached out a hand, gripped her arm and pulled her inside, holding her close, my arms around her waist. I hugged her tight, to make sure she was real.
"Hey," I whispered. "How on earth—"
My face was against her cold cheek, she was freezing.
"You’re cold," I said in the dark just inside the closed door. The fire had burned down. I didn’t trust the furnace. "Let me get you something hot to drink. Let’s get you out of these clothes." I breathed in her fresh scent, mixed with cold and snow and pine. "How’d you get up here, anyway?"
"Plane," she murmured, her lips icy, her breath cold against my neck. "Plane . . . ."
"Listen," I said. We stood in shadow, the fallen snow reflecting a dim light through the window. "Let’s get you undressed and into something warmer. I’m having trouble with the furnace. Anyway, it’s late, you need to get some sleep. Where’s your bag, honey?"
Claire didn’t answer, shivering and trembling as I held her close, her parka zipper sharp against my t-shirt.
It wasn’t the first time a woman had come to me, suddenly, on the spur of the moment, without even a change of clothes. I knew Claire loved me, but until this second I hadn’t known how much.
Now I was grateful I hadn’t left a note for Audrey. The snow had stopped, they must have been able to plow the field. It hadn’t been too icy. Judy was wrong.
It was like something out of a movie, standing together in the dark, the fire gone low, only a pale gray light from the snow outside. Claire’s face was in darkness, for a second again I wasn’t sure it was Claire, it might have been any of my girls—Monique had turned the blue Jaguar around and raced back, Audrey on a whim had hurried from her cabin across the new snow . . . .
The idea excited me, intentionally I didn’t peer at her face but let my lips find her mouth in the dark. I liked the mystery. But again I recognized he shyness, the vulnerability of her touch, her modesty, so different from Monique. So lovely. Monique put me off.
"I, I . . . ."
"Shhh," I whispered. She could hardly form words, she was so cold. Her slacks were soaked through to the knees.
"Why didn’t you call me? Did the taxi leave you at the bottom of the hill?"
"Plane," she managed again, her mouth close to my cheek.
"Here," I said. "Stand still."
"Snow . . . ."
"I know, don’t worry." I stood back and unzipped her parka, then undid her zippered wool sweater.
"Here, honey," I said taking her hand, leading her to the bed. I pulled off her caked boots, then her wool slacks, then her underwear.
"Now," I said, "let me get you warm. Did you know they did this in the war, to flyers downed at sea?"
I leaned her back onto the bed, then got in, my arms around her.
"No . . . ."
"Claire?" I whispered.
She trembled and I held her tight a long time, until she calmed, until I kissed her cheek again, in the darkness searching out her closed lips. "Oh baby," I whispered and gently forced her lips open. I kissed her, and then she began to respond. She kissed me back.
"You love me," she whispered. "Oh I knew you did. I told them you did." She was excited, nearly crying.
In the dark, without speaking, I made love slowly, carefully, calm as breathing. Then, as I reached the end, I felt frightened, lost in the dark with Claire, not with all the other girls but with this one, who was Claire and Claire and Claire. She was my world. Now I was the one who clung desperately to her.
"The airport," I said, my lips against her pale hair. Claire’s hair was so light, so blonde, like her name, Claire, which meant "light." I’d never thought of that before. "I’m glad it reopened."
"No," she murmured. She moved against me, lifting her knee, as if in a dream, half asleep. "My . . . . My . . . ."
Then she was asleep. She’d just drifted off. I lay there, holding her. Wake up, I thought, wake up, please, sweet Claire. But she didn’t. I felt her chest rise and fall and rise and fall against my own, almost as if we had one heart, as if her heart was mine, it was her heart beating in and around me. I was all right, as long as her heart kept beating. I fell asleep.
Her elbow bumped me sharply, in the side, then again.
"Claire? Are you okay?"
"Oh," she said, her head moving back and forth in the dark. "Oh," she said.
"What’s wrong?" All I could see was the vague white outline of her forehead.
"Nightmare. Awful nightmare."
"It’s all right now," I said, holding her. "You’re safe. We’re together." As I said it, I realized I said it to myself. Safe. Now I was safe. That was it.
"I had a nightmare," she whispered, her voice breaking again. I could hardly hear her.
"It’s all right," I said. "It’s over."
"Oh," she said, "you left me. You, you . . . ."
I ran a finger softly across her eyelids. "There," I said, "is that better?"
"So real, real. The snow, the snow, flying down. Home . . . ."
"But you’re home," I whispered to her. "You’re with me."
"Yes," she said, "home."
In the dark I turned her toward me again, I lifted her chin and kissed her mouth. Again I felt the thrill of blindness, of surprise, of Claire who was all women, all time and space.
In her sleep, she must have turned from me. I reached for her, then opened my eyes.
I stared at the hollow her head had made in the pillow. I smelled her sweet scent in the rumpled bedclothes.
"Claire!" I called.
She was in the bathroom, I thought suddenly, with relief, letting my head fall back on the pillow. I couldn’t lose Claire. It had been like a dream, a wonderful dream. I hadn’t known what love was, not really. This was what all the great books were about, the great stories they tried to make into movies. I felt almost religious. It was a kind of religion. Full of her, I gazed at the cold fireplace, then at the floor. What was our rhyme? "How many miles to Babylon?/Yes, and back again!"
Her boots were no longer on the rug where I had dropped them. I sat up.
Her parka and sweater were gone from the chair. I turned, staring out the window, at the new world of white, then at the dark holes leading down the steps from the door.
I hurried to the door and threw it open. In the freezing still air I called,
Her name echoed down the snow-covered hill to the road, to the sleepy general store with three feet of snow on its roof, the pizza parlor. Nothing moved, all was white and cold and still under the gray mist. I closed the door and then scrambled into my clothes and boots. I grabbed my parka from the rack and went outside.
My boots sank and lifted through the clean squeaking snow. She’d just gone out, to get something special at the store.
I slogged ten yards, then stopped.
I saw Claire’s tracks. They didn’t go down the hill to the store, but circled up, behind the cabin onto the hill, where she’d walked out into the fresh morning snow.
I followed her trail across the hill, past Audrey’s cabin.
Audrey’s car was there, wearing a rounded white hood. She was standing in a blue Chinese bathrobe with her back to the fire, before the tall wall of glass. Her hair made a dark cloud around her face. She saw me, smiling and lifting a coffee cup in invitation as I passed.
I waved stiffly and entered the dense woods.
I kept looking up to see Claire’s red parka up ahead, the one she and I had picked out together three weeks before at Squaw Valley. It was Christmas red, like a winter cardinal.
But she was never there, only her tracks where she’d gone in nearly to the hip and my heart turned at the thought of Claire struggling through the snow.
I breathed hard, frantic.
The pines stared black and menacing. A stellar jay’s sudden cry sounded bitter, sarcastic. My boots sank through the snow as my throat tightened and once I fell forward in the tripping deep powder.
"Don’t let anything happen to her," I heard myself say out loud. "Don’t."
My voice sounded like someone else’s.
"Claire!" I shouted again, "I love you!" but still there was no answer.
It took 40 minutes to make the ridge through the heavy drifts. I paused, putting my head down to catch my breath. Then my heart stopped. It was all there, like a modern, full-sized sculpture of a real-life scene. Someone had arranged the exposed face of snow-capped granite, the five or six fallen pine boughs, the green scars in the two tree trunks that had bark like a puzzle.
The two pines stood alone, a few yards apart, like dark sentinels. On either side, half in, half out of the snow, lay a sheared silver wing. One showed black letters and numbers where the snow had slid off. TR4526.
Now it was snowing lightly again, the snow falling on the scene as if to seal it forever in my memory. The plane had cleared the jutting rock below the ridge, lost its wings against the trees, then skated down the hill until it came to rest in the meadow.
I saw Claire’s tracks where she had climbed down to the wreck. I felt relieved. But why hadn’t she wakened me when she’d heard the crash?
"Claire!" I shouted. "I’m here! Mark!"
Silence, the white flakes falling like feathers from a stricken bird. I went down toward the plane, falling twice and getting up and trying to run. It wasn’t any good and I trudged deliberately down the slope, letting one heel and then another sink past the knee into the new snow.
It was too far for Claire to hear me. My chest heaved and the air cut my lungs. The snow was higher toward the bottom of the hill and I moved over and walked in Claire’s tracks, stepping down into the holes her boots had made.
I passed a cushioned seat, upside-down, showing its black springs. Then I saw the tip of what looked like a silver door sticking up. I thought of her alone, seeing the plane, how she’d watched it get closer and bigger. I wondered if she’d cried out to the passengers.
"Claire?" I called from 20 yards. "Claire!"
She didn’t answer or come out of the cabin and I didn’t shout again but kept moving.
Snow had drifted in dunes against the plane’s silver side. The windows were frosted over. With my ski glove, then with the steel button at my cuff, I scratched away a small porthole in the ice.
A middle-aged man in a cowboy hat and a fleece-lined coat and shattered wire-rimmed glasses slumped over the wheel. There was caked blood on his face where the glasses had cut him. The other seat was gone, the starboard door torn off.
I touched the fuselage with my glove, trying to pull myself around the front of the plane, gripping the bent, upright propeller blade, then stepped along the engine cowling, to the open cockpit sheltered from the snow.
In a blue hooded parka, with her blonde head turned, she held her arms around a woman in a green sweater. The woman had gray hair. I ducked and stepped into the plane where the passenger seat had been.
"Claire— For God’s sake—"
She didn’t turn. I reached out and touched her shoulder.
"Claire?" I said it gently.
She didn’t answer. I touched the gray-haired woman’s arm. I leaned her toward me, away from Claire’s grasp.
The woman felt still, she wasn’t breathing. I looked into her face and saw her blue eyes were open. There was ice on her brows. I let the woman fall and moved between them, grasping Claire’s shoulder, turning her toward the light. Her head fell forward.
"Claire!" I gripped her cold chin, lifting it.
I dropped my hand. I fell back against the front seat, so the plane shifted. The pilot leaned over onto the floor. The soft thud made me jump.
The girl wasn't Claire, I saw that now.
I got to my feet and climbed out.
The snow fell harder. There was no sound. A thick white mist had settled on the ridge and was drifting quickly down the slope.
I started to call Claire’s name, then stared back at the dark interior of the plane. The pilot had lost his brown stetson. It lay overturned by the door.
I looked back up the hill, through the snow falling steadily in white lines. I saw my tracks in the snow beside Claire’s, then the single tracks where I’d followed her down. Already they were growing round and dim, snow building and spilling at their edges.
My heart leaped as I thought I saw Claire in her red parka below the granite outcropping but before I could call to her she was gone. Then the rock disappeared.
I began to make a circle, stumbling as I reached for the tail, then getting up and angling off, widening my arc as the snow fell.
I circled the wreck twice without picking up the trail Claire must have made when she’d gone back to get help. I kept hoping to hear a helicopter, to see Claire in her bright parka through the glass bubble of the nose.
"Claire!" I called once again into the snowy air, then stopped, swallowing her name.
I looked back at the wingless plane. Now its silhouette was fuzzy. I took a step toward it, to look again at the girl’s face, then hesitated, turning toward the hill.
I couldn’t find it.
In a sudden push the heavy cloud had reached the meadow. Ground and sky blurred white with no line in between. I could see 20 yards.
I started moving through the white curtain, using the plane like a compass to find the ridge.
I turned again, to get my bearings. I had to look hard to see the plane. Snow was stacked a foot high on the roof and dripped in a rounded frozen eave toward the windows. Snow rose in a smooth hill against the side and spilled like flour through the door.
The blonde outline of the girl’s head leaned against the frosted window.
My head ached at the temples. I was shivering and out of breath. When I breathed out the steam it felt cold. Thick ice covered my boots and pants legs. My feet burned. They felt hot and wet and then I couldn’t feel them anymore.
The wind had picked up, the white mist swirling just above the ground. I wasn’t sure where the ridge was. I wasn’t sure which way the plane was pointing when I’d first seen it.
If I took the wrong direction, I’d go off into the woods and never make it to the cabin. I’d freeze to death.
I hurried toward the plane, trying to plow my way though the blowing snow that stung my face and caught with white hands at my buried knees. I stared at the brown hat. It was full of snow. Then I ducked through the door into the cockpit.
I looked at the gray-haired woman in the green sweater.
At the girl.
I moved toward her. I started to pull her onto the floor by the woman.
I gripped her wrist where the parka sleeve had risen up. Then I stopped. I saw a blue vein, the pale skin, felt the slender, cold bone underneath.
I sat down.
I took the cold girl in my arms. There was a wool blanket behind the seat and I put it around us. I hugged her tighter as the wind began to whine and snow blew sideways past the open door.
I watched the snow falling, holding her against my chest, until the frosty window caked over.
"It’s all right," I said. "You’re home."
She didn’t answer and I pressed my cheek against hers, until her face was warm. "‘Can I make it by candlelight?/Yes, and back again!’" I told her the rhyme. Or thought I did. I felt warm. I closed my eyes.
After all, it was Claire—
Two men in yellow snow suits carried me from the buried plane and put me onto a stretcher. A red turning light stained the snow and an engine roared. I heard a radio, people talking in a garble.
I tried to speak, to tell them, but I was too cold. I wasn’t sure what had happened. There was too much noise. They put an oxygen mask on my face.
The helicopter flew me to the hospital in Tahoe City.
The next day when I woke after surgery Claire was by my bed. The weather had cleared and she’d taken the first flight. I’d lost the last two toes on my right foot. All the rest were blue.
Claire said in my sleep I’d called her name a number of times. At first it had frightened her, then made her happy. I didn’t remember, just that I’d called her name to the girl in the snow.
In the Chronicle I read the girl’s name was Sonya Jackson. There was a picture of her. She was pretty. She was 19.
She was flying with her parents to Colorado Springs when the snow got too thick and the wings had iced up. Her aunt said she’d just broken up with her boyfriend, a law student at Berkeley. She’d been very upset and had stopped going to classes at Stanford.
Sonya’s parents, who ran a cattle ranch, were worried about her health and had flown to San Francisco to take her home.
Local resident Mark Thomas, 29, had reached the wreck but been trapped and taken shelter in the plane when the blizzard resumed. When searchers found him his arms were still wrapped around Sonya, whom he’d tried to keep from freezing. Though he’d failed, the rescue team lauded him for his heroism.
What did she think or feel—Sonya—when she woke that morning in my bed? Did she look at my face as I slept? Did it look like her boyfriend’s? Why didn’t she use the phone in the kitchen? Why didn’t she wake me, or stop at another door to ask for help?
How did she feel when she put on her clothes or looked around the strange room? What was she thinking when she went down the steps, then back through the snow to the plane? Did she know she was going to die? Did she want to?
Yesterday, I got a grateful letter from Sonya’s aunt. She was concerned about my condition but thankful her niece hadn’t been alone.
What should I do? Is there anything to do?
What about the girl? Were we supposed to meet?
I cover my ears when I hear a plane flying over. I can’t look at snow, or women’s faces: each face turns into Sonya’s.
I can’t stop seeing the two trees with cut bark and beyond them the plane without its wings in the snow, or the tracks the girl made when she went down the hill to the wreck past the upside-down seat. Or her face, when I lifted it toward me inside the plane. I didn’t expect to find a stranger.
When I do sleep, I dream, and inside the dream I wake up. Someone’s pounding on the cabin door.
As I hurry to open it, I’m happy, sure that it’s Claire—until later, inside the wrecked plane, I turn her cold face toward me.
Nels Hanson earned a B.A. at the University of California at Santa Cruz and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from the University of Montana, where he studied with William Kittredge and Richard Hugo. He received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award in Literature for a novel-in-progress, and an honorable mention in its Joseph Henry Jackson competition for a short story collection. Hanson’s fiction has appeared in a number of literary journals, including Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, South Dakota Review, and Zahir, and in California Heartland, an anthology of San Joaquin Valley writing. He taught briefly at the University of Montana, Fresno State, and Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo) and for a number of years was a farmer. He lives with his wife, Vicki, in San Luis Obispo where together they operate an editing service.
Copyright 2005, Nels Hanson. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.