Our story this week comes to us from EJ Gray. She has a BA in English Literature from Hood College and multiple published poems.
I hope that I do her short story justice through my review.
Voices in the Snow, is a beautiful story about loss, love and discovery. Walter has lost his wife and is still lost in grief. He now lives alone in his cottage in the countryside with only his dog for company. He does not speak, he does not visit the near by town, he only visits the grave of his wife and the woods around his home.
When the winter snows arrive he makes for a walk in the cold woods with his loyal hound. It is within the snow covered trees that he will discover his future.
Walter Harmon had not spoken in six months and four days. Shortly after that hot, July afternoon when his wife Elisabeth suddenly fell in the garden and died, Walter’s throat closed. They were picking early beans and laughing the moment before she put her hand to her chest, uttered a soft “oh” and fell to her knees. Walter caught her before she hit the ground, cradling her head and calling for help that never came.
He waited two days before he buried her under an oak tree in the corner of the yard. He built her a sturdy cedar box and lined it with their white and lavender wedding quilt. Lis’s loves were poetry, music, and Walter, so on the morning he buried her, Walter sang to her every song he knew. He brushed her long hair, dressed her in a warm flannel nightgown, and tucked her in with a love song and a dog-eared book of poetry.
After 34 years of marriage, Walter felt that he should have felt it coming. There must had been some indication that her heart wasn’t well – a change in her demeanor, a deeper quiet that crept into her usually gentle ways. Shouldn’t there had been a warning that the earth was about to split in two?
Never having been a man of many words, all he had, he saved for Elisabeth. The two lived far from town in a cottage on the edge of a mountain wood, where they kept quiet company. Lis loved her gardening and books, and Walter loved Lis. Her smile had teased from his stoic lips silly stories, and sillier poetry. She made him want to be a fool, so long as he was hers. Often, Walter would sing to her, crooning as they worked in the yard or sweeping her into an impromptu waltz in as she worked in the kitchen.
Her funeral was attended only by some song birds, drawn by Walter’s strong tune. As he sang the world stopped moving. The bees in garden, the hummingbirds, the midsummer cacophony silenced in the face of his grief. Walter sang as he snugged her casket into the earth, and he sang as he placed a polished, wooden cross at the top. And then he stopped.
He was reluctant to leave her in the ground alone, so he came out to sit with her every afternoon. Sitting in silence he would stare intensely at her marker as if he could send his thoughts to her. Knowing Elisabeth would be bereft without plants, he planted zinnias to grow in a riot of color around her grave in the summer and mums to flash orange and red in the fall. After the first hard frost, he had tidied the dying flowers and replaced them with an evergreen wreath and a sprig of mistletoe.
He spent his days alone, in the cottage in the woods, or wandering the trails in the woods and acreage behind it. Often, he’d be up at dawn with his hiking stick and hound dog, ready to tromp the woods until the heat overcame him or the damp and cold soaked his bones. Only then would he retire, begrudgingly, back to the house for a strong cup of coffee. His wife’s things remained untouched. Her sweater still hung from the back of her kitchen chair, her reading glasses rested on the top of the last book she read, and her sunhat hung from the peg by the back door. Her gardens out back lay fallow and would remain so. One morning in December, Walter pulled on his boots and flannel jacket. It had snowed and an ache had settled deep into his back and knees. He thought about staying in, but the need to escape the house and his thoughts won out over his creaking knees. The dog too was anxious to get out this morning and was whining at the back door as if he sensed his master’s need to roam. Placing his hands on his knees, Walter hoisted himself from the chair by the woodstove. He pulled his red flannel hat around his ears and the gloves that had been warming near the stove. Nodding at the dog, he reached for his walking stick and went out.
The snow was the first of the season. Not thick, it scarcely topped the toe of Walter’s boots, but it was pure. As far as he could see, untouched white sparkled in the morning sun. It dazzled his eyes, making him blink until they could adjust. He stopped and breathed in the sharp air until bit at his lungs. The silence was palpable, but not menacingly so. It was the gift of auditory thought, enhanced by crystals of ice. The mountains ahead and behind amplified the sound and the heavy tinnitus suited Walter fine.
The dog ran ahead, breaking the tree line before Walter even left the fenced front yard. He let him go. Walter couldn’t keep up with the hound anymore and they had an understanding: the dog would run wild and then return a calmer, happier beast. Walter passed from the open expanse of field to the buffered hush of the forest.
Here, the snow had barely touched the ground covered in leaves. Walter gripped his walking stick and set off at a pace. He followed his familiar trail, worn smooth from daily use. Overhead, late squirrels rushed amid the tangled, naked branches of oak, birch, and maple ahead of his progress, showering bits of snow down onto his head. As he reached the creek about a quarter of a mile from the cottage, he heard the hound baying.
The dog didn’t sound hurt, but as if it had cornered something. The barking sounded close so Walter turned and followed the creek towards the noise. Here, the trees were less dense and snow had accumulated, the bright white marred by patches of dead, wet leaves. Walter’s accustomed path crossed the creek on a makeshift bridge and continued beyond the water, circling north around the lower ridge and back to the house. He rarely went west and down the side of the mountain where the tree roots reached up through the rocks to grab his feet.
He rushed as well as he could, using his walking stick to check for uneven ground ahead. The barking got louder as he got closer, but he could not yet see what trouble the dog had stirred up. As he rounded a pile of rocks and veered back away from the creek he saw the dog and a large, black, figure with its arms raised high. The dog must had come upon a hunter’s kill and would need to be called off. Walter, stopped, silently taking in the sight. The black figured growled and pawed at the sky. It was then that Walter realized that it wasn’t a hunter the dog had run afoul of; it was a black bear. The bear appeared to have cornered the dog, who stood between the bear and an oak tree, hunkered down as though protecting the tree. The bear was up on its hind legs, snarling at the dog. Walter had encountered black bears in the woods before and each time, both parties had warily parted ways as quickly as possible. Walter couldn’t see any cubs or food that would make the normally docile black bear aggressive.
So far, it appeared as though neither dog nor bear were interested in actually attacking the other. The dog’s stance was protective, not provocative and the bear was swiping at the ground with its paw and popping its jaws, trying to scare the dog away. Walter slowly pulled his bear spray from his pocket. He never had much use for guns, and the pepper spray was his concession for safety. Elisabeth had insisted on it years ago, but he’d never had to use it. He quietly popped the safety latch as he watched the standoff.
Suddenly, the dog’s barking became more intense and he lunged at the bear’s lower leg. The bear lowered its head and prepared to charge. That’s when Walter saw it – a flash of bright pink hat behind the dog.
Walter hollered, an indistinct, guttural sound, and waved his arms to distract the bear.
The bear turned, its attention drawn to Walter. Walter advanced slowly, waving his stick and making himself as large and loud possible. He shouted again.
The bear hesitated between the barking dog and the screaming man. It shook its head, unsure where to go, then backed down on its haunches and bumbled off into the brush, leaving broken bushes in its wake.
Walter stood, catching his breath and watching the bear’s departure through the bracken. He swallowed hard, his throat raw after months of disuse. The dog backed down as well and turned its attention to the pink hat behind him. Its tail wagged as it nosed the thing behind it. Still shaken, Walter warily went over to see what the dog had found.
Walter feared the worst; that the bear had mauled the thing behind the dog. Or that something else had killed it and that the dog and bear had been competing over the remains. He didn’t want to look, but then he heard the giggle. The high clear laugh rang odd and true over the cold and silent woods. The dog was sniffing and licking the face of a small child, a baby that sat in a crook formed by the tree root. Seemingly unaffected by the bear or the cold, the child was laughing as the dog sniffed it all over. It was a girl according to the pink hat and matching snowsuit. A fringe of brown hair peeked from under her hat and her eyes were bright with the cold.
Walter stopped dead, scanning the woods for anyone looking for the baby. The woods were silent except for the laughter of the girl and wiggling dog. Gingerly, he approached the baby and the dog. The hound wagged his entire body as Walter bent down to the pair. He patted the dog’s head gruffly and looked at the child. At his approach, the girl screwed up her face and began to wail. He abruptly stood up, running his hand over his head. His hat came off in his hand and he continued to drag his fingers through his hair distractedly, staring at the screaming baby. Desperately, he looked around again. Surely someone was searching for her. They were so far from town. The baby was too small to wander out here alone. Walter didn’t even know if she could walk.
Stooping down again, he picked up the wailing child and held her awkwardly away from him. Fat tears rolled down her red cheeks, matting her lashes. Carefully he held her to him and patted her back. She seemed to like this, so he continued, slowly shifting his weight from foot to foot in time to each tiny thump on her back.
He looked down at her and she up at him.
“Hi,” she said.
Walter smiled weakly.
“Hi,” she smiled back. She began to play with the top button of his coat. Walter shifted her slightly to the side to hold her more comfortably.
Unsure what to do, Walter’s eyes searched the woods for help once more as if it could materialize on a wish. Wish denied, the baby began to wriggle. He decided to head home. He didn’t know what he’d do with her when he got there, but at least it would be warm. Walter whistled to the dog and began to walk back towards the creek. The baby, alternately played with his buttons and his beard, and tried to grab his stick. Walter continued to walk as quickly and as carefully as he could. His knee had begun to throb.
When he arrived back at the cottage, he set the baby on the couch and paced. The dog jumped on the couch next to the baby. Walter glared. The sun was beginning to set behind the mountain and the peaks looked black in the orange-red light. He knew he should call someone, but the cottage was at least an hour from town and the roads would be treacherous in the snow. Walter picked up the phone and hung it up only to pick it up again. The baby and the dog fell asleep. Outside, the snow began to fall.
Walter watched the baby and dog sleeping on the couch. He placed the blue and gray afghan Lis had made over the baby and thought about what he should do. The Sherriff’s office down in Murphy only had a couple of deputies. No one would be able to make it up until the morning. And what would Sherriff Joe do with the girl? The town was too small to support any type of social services. Up here, folks took care of their own. He decided to wait until morning.
The baby snuffled in her sleep and snuggled closer to the dog. Walter stood up and fed the woodstove. Then he paced some more, running his hands through his hair once more.
The room began to warm, and the baby, overheated in her snowsuit, woke up and began to cry. Jarred from his stupor, Walter went to the couch and began to remove the baby’s hat, boots, and coat. Red faced, and sweaty, the baby’s hair stuck to her head as she squinted and blinked against the light while Walter struggled to remove her snowsuit. Extricating the baby was an exercise in patience, zippers, and snaps. Finally, he set the snowsuit aside and put his head in his hands. Lis would know what to do.
Sitting there, he realized that he’d forgotten to remove his own outerwear. He tried to take his coat off, but the child became wriggly, trying to climb off of the couch.
“Off!” She said triumphantly. “Off!” she said as her feet slid to the floor.
Heaving a sigh, Walter removed his coat and tried to take off his boots, but the baby was playing with the strings. Shaking his head “no,” he sat the baby back on the couch and finished the job. She crawled over the dog and stood behind Walter, hanging onto his collar.
“Hi, Hi, Hi, Hi,” she chanted.
The sun was now fully set, and dinner time was near. Walter warmed up a can of beef stew and divided it between two bowls. Sitting the baby on his lap, he tried to feed her. Squealing, she turned her face from side to side, refusing the food. Walter sat her back on the floor and gave her a spoon to play with and a cracker. Happily, she banged the spoon on the rung of his chair, chewed on the cracker, and shared with the dog. Three crackers and a spoonful of stew later, Walter wiped her with a washcloth and sat her back on the couch.
He sat next to her, watching as she patted and hugged the dog, making “aww” noises. The dog licked at her, wagging its tail. She was a cute enough thing with brown hair and eyes. She wore a pair of overalls and a pink shirt with some ruffly thing on the collar. Looking at Walter she grinned, but as abruptly as she grinned she began to cry.
Picking her up, Walter tried the back- patting again. It didn’t work. He bounced her on his shoulder, but the wailing only intensified. He realized that she probably needed a diaper change.
Walter and Lis didn’t have any children of their own, much to Lis’s regret. Walter had never minded so long as he had Lis, but the absence left him without the necessary skills. He checked the baby’s snowsuit for a diaper to no avail. With all the zippers and strange compartments, he had been certain there would have been one. Frustrated, Walter dropped the garment back onto the couch. A flash caught his eye. Further inspection revealed a ring tied to a loop on the inside of the snowsuit – and a note. Walter’s heart sank. She wasn’t a lost baby; she was an unwanted one.
Cradling the baby in one arm, Walter untied the bit of yellowed ribbon from the suit. Shakily, he placed the ring on the table and opened the note:
This is Alyssa, my daughter, my love, my life.
Protect her and love her as your own.
I can’t care for her anymore. I can’t even save
myself. I don’t have anyone to leave her to.
This ring was my mother’s. I want her to know
that she comes from women stronger than me.
She loves music and graham crackers.
I call her Lyss.
Stunned, Walter sat in the rocking chair, staring at the note until he could no longer see. The baby grabbed for the paper and woke Walter from his stupor. Looking up at him, she grinned, showing slightly crooked baby teeth. Suddenly, Walter knew he would do anything for that smile.
Shaking his head, he began to rock and pat her back. As he held her, he began to sing in slow, broken syllables. With each note, his voice became stronger as he held her close. He sang the cobwebs and rust free from his throat as they rocked long into that winter night.
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