The Snow Ghost
At dawn, I woke and there it was: the first frost. Steam puffed out my dog’s mouth, grass cracked beneath my feet, but I didn’t light the fire. I had to wait at least another month before starting to burn in the morning, or I’d never make it to spring. An hour after sunup the flies were hovering. I gathered up my saw and axe and went down to the barn and started the truck. It had been awhile so I let it run while I checked the coolant and the tires. A bat flew around in the rafters and the ground was littered with red and green shotgun shells. Spools of bailing wire sat in the corner atop an old army chest. The barn hadn’t seen a horse in over a decade. It felt good to be in the cab of the truck easing down the road. There was a smell of dust and my grandfather’s tobacco. The brake lights didn’t work but I wouldn’t have much traffic to contend with. It was old but I kept it clean. On the radio they read the news, innocent people killed by chemical weapons in a place I’d never go. As I rolled down to the gas station and put twenty dollars in the tank, I couldn’t shake a certain shame at my ignorance of the world in which I lived.
Usually, I gathered wood from tracts of logging slash. They leave the worthless scrap behind, which was fine for my cordwood. I was working the saw pretty hard, pumping grease out onto the bar, when I hit a burl in a branch and it bucked up and almost nicked me in the shoulder. The sweat ran down my face into my mouth, and I could taste salt, sawdust, a hint of sage or manzanita. I felt an almost euphoric calm, a sense of the immediacy and transparency of what I was doing, a simplicity that somehow supported my entire being. That’s when I saw it, pulling off my gloves and wiping my brow, squinting at an aspen growing near a spring by the road: the first yellow leaf. A marmot had been scrutinizing me from the ridge as I threw the last few rounds into the bed. Normally I felt a sort of kinship with wild animals, even with plants, geology, climate, but this marmot was unnerving. It was watching me not because of who I was or what I was doing, but just because I happened to inhabit that particular time and place.
Back at my place, I unloaded the wood and split the bigger pieces. Cracking a piece of wood just right is one of the most satisfying sensations I know. Given enough space, there’s no end to the joy such details can bring, even scrubbing the floor can feel like the most important task in the universe. A couple of the rounds of juniper were so knotted I had to use a wedge and sledgehammer. The sound of steel on steel rang across the emptiness like gunshot. The wind whistled through the pines and the needles stirred and shimmered in the light. Pinecones bounced down the branches and hit the ground with dull thuds. Some indifference in the sound, or in the undulation of the needles, brought tightness to my chest and a strange taste into my mouth. The shadows began to lengthen; the maul in my hands looked thirty feet long and my silhouette was like a giant twisting east. A gaggle of geese flew over, heading south, making a lot of noise. All summer my woodpile housed an elegant praying mantis, but now it was nowhere to be found.
When the sun disappeared behind a mountain, I built two fires, one in my big stove inside, the other in the little stove in the cedar tub I used for bathing. It was just big enough for me, so it didn’t take too long to heat. I filled it with water, and while I waited for it to reach a hundred degrees, I walked down to the river to see if any fish were jumping. Once I got there, I had to sit. My eyes wouldn’t focus. The water was like radio static, the sky gave off a strange stench of ozone, and a bug I couldn’t name kept landing on the back of my neck. Whatever meanings the surroundings used to have were gone. I didn’t have any reason to look at the river, to walk back up the hill and scrub myself, to eat dinner and read a book and go to bed. Even more alarming, my memory was gone. I couldn’t remember my parents or what I had done that day, my whole consciousness was held captive by the quaking aspens and something moving across the water. I realized I was holding my breath and when I let it out, the world came back to me, my heart pounding, my hands clammy. I could feel the duff beneath my feet, could smell the smoke, see Venus, the evening star, and then Sirius. I walked to the tub and pulled off my clothes and stayed underwater as long as I could. I was too far north to see Canopus or Alpha Centauri, but Arcturus was luminous by the time I polished off dinner and went outside to smoke and tilt my head upward. The celestial bodies, remote as they were, felt closer than the violent country on the radio, closer even than my nearest neighbors. I was like an old person who can remember what they are doing at present and remember clarities of their distant childhood, but little in between. There was the cosmos and whatever I held in my hands; the rest was theory.
I fell asleep but then woke around midnight and couldn’t keep my eyes closed. I saw quotidian things, but they all looked uncanny somehow. There was the wheelbarrow by the woodpile in the moonlight; concrete caked on the rim. My dog’s paws twitching in her sleep. The rifle in the corner, its leather strap embroidered with a name I couldn’t pronounce. A place where moisture had slipped between two panes of glass and left a permanent fog. At the base of the hill, the barn, inanimate but charged with a hidden force, like an animal hiding in a thicket, standing stock still yet unable to conceal its energy from whatever stalks it. Was someone stalking me? Was some specter loitering around my home, or was it the lack of something? Was that what was in the silence? The shimmer of aurora borealis zigzagged across the sky and I thought I heard the echo of a big rig on the highway, audible only when the wind was just right. Maybe I was afraid of myself, simple loneliness, cabin fever. The indifference of the marmot, the ghost that is actually just empty space. The brook babbled, the pines whispered slightly and then, the queerest occurrence: crows. Crows were hopping and cawing down by the riverside. What were crows doing up in the middle of the night, at that latitude, with winter coming on?
The dome light was shining in my truck. I didn’t recollect having turned it on. I slipped into my moccasins and walked across the yard. It was the coldest hour of the night, and I could smell the snow, still further north, but advancing. I saw my gloves on the seat and there was something sinister and unnerving about them, with the hole in the left thumb and the scuffmarks all over. Countless times my hands had gone in and out of them, but they wouldn’t know my hands from another’s, and I didn’t know the hands that made them. Somewhere they had a creator, and in that instant it seemed wrong that there should be such distance between beginning and end. The things I touched weren’t just for me, even if the touching changed them. I rekindled the fire and as I lay back down, coyotes began to howl in the east. My dog was still twitching and flashing her fangs; my stirring didn’t wake her. In the morning I boiled the kettle, and as the dry tea leaves rattled into the pot awaiting hot water, I registered that the dissociation I was feeling, the shudder I was catching from the air around me was not gone, quite the contrary, it was stronger. Places where the house showed signs of wear, physical evidence of my presence, were unfamiliar. Was the man who nailed tongue and groove to wall the same man looking at it now? My dog thrust her snout into the air. Her winter coat was already coming in. The snow might come sooner than expected.
All that day I sharpened metal as clouds gathered. I wet my stone and worked a buck knife. It made a gravelly grumble, satisfying like a baseball hitting a mitt, the dull material scraped away to reveal a honed edge hiding within what was already there. I put an axe to the wheel. I ground a kitchen knife with a steel, and ran a straight razor up and down the strop. As I stood shaving, steam rising and clouding the mirror from a cauldron of water, a hawk crossed the window. I heard it screeching and went outside, still half lathered, to find it perched on the roof and staring at me. My dog barked but the bird wouldn’t budge. It seemed to want something, tilting its head back and forth, but when I took a step in its direction it screeched again and flew away. I went back in and turned the radio on to break the silence. There was a baseball game, and though I didn’t catch the score, the lull of the announcer fortified me enough to finish my shave. It wasn’t the sport itself I needed but the sense of other people, that very moment, hearing the same thing I was hearing, sharing it with me. I splashed water on my face and covered it for a moment with a clean towel, the soft cotton fibers smooth against my clean pores, a sort of infantile comfort. When I pulled it away, something was in the mirror behind me. It had no form I could articulate; yet I knew it was there. I stared so long without blinking my eyes began to water, and when I finally let my lids drop for an instant and looked again, it was gone. All that was left was me.
I sat peeling potatoes as the first flakes of snow began to fall. Through the mounting whiteout I distinguished a couple, a man and a woman, walking. They looked familiar, but I couldn’t recall their names or imagine what they were doing on my land in such weather. The man whistled a greeting, but my dog didn’t bark? Was the couple only in my world and not hers? I looked over at her and cut my hand. Blood ran down the potato and dripped into the compost bucket. I bandaged it and when I looked again the couple was gone. A chill crossed my shoulders and I put on a sweater. As the weeks passed, the haunting crept into more and more of my waking life, not abruptly, like a storm changes the atmosphere, but subtly like the first hint of dawn warms a room. The snow broke state records. I tried to make it to town but couldn’t get the truck out. Staying alive was all that made sense. Tending the fire, knocking snow off the roof and melting it to drink, anything beyond the essential became impossible. I resembled the dog, sleeping and eating and little else. I didn’t hear coyotes anymore. The trees froze. I no longer knew what I was giving to this world. I couldn’t say what it meant to be in love, or to hate. I thought I was going to hell. I had to shovel constantly just to keep from being snowed in. My cheeks turned blue, my hair grew long. My radio broke, and I became so accustomed to extreme silence that I would startle myself by setting down a mug.
The stars were so clear on those winter nights, it looked like I could shatter the sky by reaching up. The world was fragile as crystal, and it was nothing short of a miracle that it made it this far. The iced trees were just white triangles on the horizon, like miniature mountains. I let the carpenter ants marching along the baseboard live; they had nowhere else to go, and I had little opportunity to exercise such mercy. The dog slept in my bed with me. We were running out of provisions. Nobody was coming for us, nobody would notice if we disappeared forever. I stopped eating, and then I stopped smoking. I wasn’t afraid of the ghost because I didn’t have anything to save; there was nothing it could take from me I wasn’t ready to give away. I started sleepwalking outside, staggering naked among snowdrifts. My dog looked at me with imploring eyes, knowing its life was in my hands. I saw its ribs begin to jut out from its sides, and felt my own doing the same. But even ghosts can’t escape the force of time. The days grew longer, new buds appeared on the trees, and the snow started, ever so slightly, to melt. One morning I woke up to bright light, and a bear was lumbering around outside, poking its nose in any nooks and crannies it could find. Usually I would scare bears away with a shot in the air, I’d even killed a few for meat and fur, but this one held my attention. Just out of hibernation, it was doubtless very hungry, but it also swung its legs and moved with an athleticism that must have felt good after so long a sleep. My dog barked and the bear raised its head and looked at me. I expected it to pop up on its hind legs, as bears often do when startled, but it just locked eyes with me until it caught a scent on the breeze and wandered off. My dog wagged her tail, proudly thinking she scared it off. I petted her head and pulled on my boots, then went out to the truck, tapped the starter motor a couple times with the handle of a shovel, and turned the key in the ignition.
Joshua Willey was born in Oakland, Calif., and studied literature at Reed College. Some of his work has appeared in Adbusters, Rain Taxi, Opium, Shelf Life, and Wasifiri. He’s currently studying to translate Chinese fiction and working on a farm.