by Elizabeth Brazeal

February third, my birthday came on a Saturday that year. I wasn’t having a party but Papa was going to take me and a few of my friends to the ice-skating rink in the afternoon. I loved the rink, with its wonderful scarred expanse of white ice and the sparkling bits kicked up by rented blades. If you ignored the bleachers and the high, dingy ceiling, you could almost believe you were outdoors in the snow.

Because it was Saturday, my sister Christina would be home from graduate school. That made the day perfect and I sang as I fastened my overall straps:

“I grow old, I grow old,

“I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled….”

This was part of a long poem I had read in a library book. I didn’t understand most of it, but I had liked some of the rhymes and made up tunes for them. It was a good song for a birthday: “I grow old, I grow old….” I threw back the pink curtains for a look at the weather.

This was unreal. This couldn’t be happening. White flakes coasted down from the sky, as feathery as mimosa blossoms. They fell so thickly I could hardly see our mailbox at the end of the drive – poured down endlessly like salt from a million salt shakers. A blizzard, just like the one that buried my first birthday, nine years ago today.

I tumbled down the stairs screaming.

“Papa, Mama, Christina, look, it’s snowing. Snow, real snow. Papa, Mama, Christina”—

Papa was drinking coffee at the table. He grinned at me, the lines around his eyes making spider legs. “How’s that for a birthday present, you little cat, you?”

“Well, do you still want to go ice skating?” Mama asked, coming out of the kitchen with a package of English muffins. “”Or would you rather just stay here and – “

“Oh, yes, yes, I want to stay here, I just want to play in the snow,” I babbled. I still couldn’t believe what was happening and I could scarcely peel myself away from the glass patio door to eat my breakfast. I didn’t have the slightest interest in my birthday presents either, though the day before I had been almost certain I knew what three of them were. All I wanted was to dash out the door and plunge my head and arms and body into this miracle – this unbelievable moonscape of whiteness.

“Slow down, lightning,” Papa said, laughing. “It’s not going to melt in two minutes.”

Still chewing, I erupted into the mudroom and stuffed my arms into my warmest coat. Mama came after me and caused difficulties here, because she wanted me to put on an extra pair of pants and several pre-jacket layers of sweaters.

“Now, I’ll have none of this nonsense. You may not own a snow suit but I’m not going to have you freeze to death out there. Here, give me your foot. I’m going to have you wear a couple of layers of socks with plastic bags in between, and then if you wear your yellow rain boots your feet shouldn’t get too cold.”

Christina came to the mud room door, braiding her curly dark hair. “Aw, Mama, don’t make her wear all that stuff,” she said. “She won’t be able to walk.”

Mama gave Christina a dirty look. “I can handle this quite well, Christina,” she said.

Christina shrugged. “Want me to come out and play with you for a while, El?” she asked. “We’ll build a fort or something.”

That sounded wonderful. Playing with Christina was always wonderful, but in the snow — ! “Oh, hurry,” I implored Mama, “hurry, hurry, hurry!”

Mama was deliberately encasing my feet in layers of socks and sandwich bags. “Wouldn’t you rather play with your friends today, Elena?” she asked. “Why don’t you go sledding with Franklin?”

“We don’t have any sleds,” I said absently. “Anyway I can play with Franklin any time. Christina’s only here on Saturday.” I twitched my left foot impatiently. “Please hurry,” I begged.

Christina took her blue fleece jacket off its hook and slipped into it. “OK, then,” she said, looking not at me but at Mama. “See you outside.”

Mama, squatting with my foot in her lap, looked up at Christina. Their eyes held each other for a long time and I could not tell what they were saying to each other. Mama looks like a witch, I thought irrelevantly. Christina’s face seemed chiseled out of something fine and white: an ice sculpture. When she spoke only her lips moved: “Fine,” she said, as though she were answering something Mama had said to her. Then she turned away to find her blue ear muffs and her braid floated after her like a plume of dark smoke.

“Hold still,” Mama said, though I hadn’t moved. “I’ll never finish you if you wiggle.”

And then at last she really was finished, and I was out the back door like an escaped tiger – plunging and floundering wildly through the marvelous drifts, careening recklessly around the yard, cannoning into white-frosted bushes and knocking storms of powder from them. Finally I collapsed on the ground, rolling and kicking, tasting snowflakes on my tongue. Snow tasted even better than I had imagined. I wanted to live in it, I wanted to die in it. I lay gasping, completely happy.

Christina looked down at me, smiling. She shook her head a little and then suddenly knelt in the snow to hug me. “Happy birthday,” she said.

“It’s the greatest birthday I’ve ever had,” I sighed, struggling to my feet. “Let’s have a snowball fight.”

A Christina-snowball-fight was high adventure. She made up a complicated game called “traitor,” where we kept switching sides and stealing each other’s snowballs. It was wet snow, good for packing. Christina pasted me in the side of the head, but then I got her right in the breadbasket.

At last she collapsed, laughing and holding her side.

“Enough,” she said. “I’m not used to this! Let’s go indoors. I’ll make you some cocoa.”

“Oh, no, not yet,” I pleaded. “Please, let’s take a walk downtown and see how everything looks. A very slow walk.”

“Aren’t your feet cold? Feet are supposed to get cold first.”

My feet were tingling, but I wasn’t about to admit it. “How could they get cold, wrapped up in all these bags?” I demanded. “Come on, let’s go for a walk, please, Christina.”

“All right, you win.” She smiled and reached me a snow-crusted mitten. “If you can pull me onto my frozen feet.”

Outside the front gate, the world was dim and strange. Seen through veils of snow, the houses on our street might have been grey prehistoric crags. The mailboxes, standing at the end of every driveway like gnome sentinels, had jaunty red flags sticking out of high white hats. The cars, blanketed in snow, were humpbacked beasts.

“It’s a different world,” I said, my mitten in Christina’s. “A secret world, just for us, that we found by accident.”

She smiled but said nothing. We turned the corner and started down Armstrong, towards Main. Ours were the first footsteps on the white satin sidewalk.

“Tell me a Susan Jay story, Christina,” I said. “A Susan Jay snow story. What did you and Susan Jay do in that other snow storm? You’ve never told me about that.”

“Well….” Christina hesitated. I looked up in anticipation at the chiseled profile between the blue ear muffs. She always began Susan Jay stories that way: “Well….”

“Well,” she said finally, “actually, Susan Jay and I weren’t playing together any more by then.”

“What?” I stared at her, snowflakes melting on my face. “Why not? Did you have a fight?”

“Well, I guess you could say that.” Christina walked along without meeting my eyes, and I had a feeling she was staring through the snow curtain into some remote place I could not see. “More like just a disagreement, really, I guess you could call it. It’s hard to explain.”

“But what kind of disagreement?” My feet really were cold now, and my toes hurt as we sludged along. “What did you have to disagree about?”

Christina shrugged. “People grow up,” she said. “They change. They grow in different directions. You can’t always stay the same and have the same life.” She was silent a moment, then added thoughtfully, “It was best the way it was.”

I puzzled painfully over this as we turned the corner onto snow-draped Main. Christina and Susan Jay in a fight? The thought gave me a strange lost feeling. Christina and Susan Jay were always best friends; they always lived next door to each other and shared outrageous adventures in Pink Ridge. I couldn’t imagine Pink Ridge without Christina and Susan Jay.

“Christina, why did we move away from Pink Ridge?” I asked.

“Papa’s job changed.”

The snow was falling so thickly now that I could barely see the shops on either side of Main Street. Even Christina, so close to me, was a vague, dark blue blur.

“Why did it change?”

“You’ll have to ask Papa that.” We had come to a stop on the sidewalk now, and the snow swirled around us like impenetrable white satin curtains. It seemed to me that Christina and I stood frozen at the heart of a secret – just the two of us.

I said in a very small, frozen voice, “Christina, what is the secret?”

She was about to answer. I heard her small intake of breath – and then the crunch of footsteps approaching. The next instant the wind blew the curtain of snow cleanly aside and showed me a man.

He was tall and thin, wrapped in a black leather jacket but bare-headed. His pace quickened as he came towards us and there was something intensely alive and fluid, like the motion of a wildcat, about his walk. His face was thin and strong and tanned, with deep-set emerald eyes. I wondered if it were possible to like someone and be afraid of him at the same time, because this man looked a little dangerous. He had a dangerous face, with those narrow green eyes – but I liked him.

He hadn’t even noticed me. He went straight up to Christina, very close, and looked into her eyes. She was tall, but he was taller. “Christina,” he said, in a tight, tawny-sounding voice – just her name. So they knew each other.

I looked up at Christina to see how she was taking it. The snow between us had thinned, and I could see her face, too: white like a magnolia blossom, with enormous dark pools for eyes. She drew back a little. “Thor,” she whispered.

Thor. It was a far-northern name, a Viking name. This man could be a Viking, I thought, with his high cheekbones, hawk-like nose, and hair that would be blond if it grew out. You could tell he had traveled to faraway places and had strange adventures.

“Where did you come from?” Christina said, still whispering. Her dark braid had come unraveled and it curled around her earmuffs in snow-wet tendrils. “Where?”

“From the train station,” he answered. “I’m on leave from the service. They sent me to military school, you know.”

“I didn’t know,” Christina said quietly. “They never told me anything.”

He had moved closer and we stood together, we three, with snow falling around us. “It’s been a long time,” he said. “Can’t we start over?”

“That’s easy for you to say.” There was something stuck in Christina’s voice, something like a small piece of ice. “Very easy for you,” she said.

He looked down then, through the silence, and saw me for the first time. I did not meet his deep green eyes, but I felt them studying me. After a moment he turned back to Christina, a question in his voice. “And this is — ?”

Christina said in a small clear voice, “This is my sister, Elena Marshall.”

“It’s my birthday today,” I said, and was immediately embarrassed. That was a five- or six-year-old kind of thing to say to a stranger. But he didn’t laugh. “Happy birthday,” he said. “How old are you? Nine?”

“You’re a good guesser,” I told him.

“Come on, Elena,” Christina said, taking my hand again. “It’s getting cold; we should go home.”

She half-turned, but Thor seized her arm and turned her back. “Listen, Christina,” he said.

“I can’t.” She tried to twist away, not looking at him. “Not again. It’s been too long. Let me go.”

“Christina. After I came all this way – “

“No. I can’t. Please just let me go.”

He held her there, with something desperate in his eyes. I wondered briefly what it would be like to have a Viking desperate about me. “You have to listen,” he said, his breath coming heavily in bursts of frozen cloud. “You owe me that much.”

“I owe you?” Her voice was brittle. “Run that by me again.”

Snow fell more thickly than before, and there was another wet, white silence. I looked up at Thor and saw that now he had Christina’s other arm, too. He was looking down at her, straight into her eyes, and she was not pulling away.

“That’s what I said,” he told her softly. “You owe me a chance, just one – a chance to do the right thing.”

“I don’t want you to do it just because it’s the right thing,” she said, her lips barely moving. “I want you to do it because – because –“ And then she suddenly melted, all at once: tears spilled down her face and she collapsed into his arms. “Thor,” she sobbed. “Thor, where’ve you been all this time?”

‘Looking for you,” he said. “Looking for you.”

I didn’t want to watch. I hated the mushy parts of movies, and real life apparently wasn’t an improvement. I studied the frozen toe of my yellow rubber rain boot, thinking about the layers of frozen plastic bags inside. I looked up once, but it was too soon.

“Elena,” Christina said, “go over to Franklin’s house.”

The command in her voice was new to me. At our house, it was Mama who bossed me around. I hesitated.

“Go,” she said.

I slowly turned and picked my way back through our already half-filled footprints. The endless snow stung my face, and my feet were so cold I couldn’t feel them. At the corner of Armstrong I stopped and looked back. I could just barely see the two of them, one shapeless dark blur with indistinct outlines. Then a curtain of snow swirled across them, cutting off my view.

I was by myself in a white wilderness.


When I arrived back home at lunch time, wearing a warmer pair of boots that Franklin’s mother had kindly loaned me, the storm had finally stopped. A few stray flakes still drifted down here and there, and as I stepped onto the back porch a load of snow slid off the eaves and powdered my jacket. I brushed it off, disgusted. I was tired of snow. I wouldn’t care if it never snowed again, ever.

In the mud room, I left all my sweaters and scarves lying in a wet heap and kicked the boots behind the washing machine. I had lost one mitten at Franklin’s, but I balled the other one and threw it in the direction of a laundry bin. Then I went through the kitchen into the dining room, and stopped short.

There were four people sitting silently around the table: Papa, Mama, Christina, and Thor. They sat at equal distances from each other, with a stone-cold cup of coffee in front of each of them, and their faces were stone-cold. Everyone’s expression was frozen onto his or her face: Mama was frozen in anger, Papa in defeat, Thor in determination, and Christina in impassivity. On Christina’s finger was a ring I had never seen before.

I said, looking from one to the other of them, “What’s the matter? What’s going on?”

Papa stretched out a hand for me to come to him. It was a very old-looking hand, I thought with surprise, old and white like an ancient, faded rubber glove. When he touched me it was cold, too, like rubber.

“Elena,” he said quietly, “we’re giving you a choice. You can stay here, or you can go with your mother.”

I stared at him. Visions of Franklin’s grandfather and the swimsuit model, and Franklin’s grandmother moving to Tennessee, floated through my head. “Happens all the time when folks get old,” Franklin had said resignedly.

I said slowly, “Are you and Mama getting divorced?”

“No,” Papa said, his voice sounding as if it came through a soup strainer. “No, we are not getting divorced.”

I looked at him and said nothing. Very slowly, as slowly as a kaleidoscope turns and brings stained-glass snowflakes into focus, I was beginning to understand.

“I’d better explain,” he said heavily.

I did not answer. Piece after piece was falling into place, and the picture was becoming clearer – assembling itself, explaining so many things that had puzzled me. It must have been only a few seconds that I stood there silently with Papa’s cold, damp hand on mine, but it seemed like a long time before the kaleidoscope finished turning – showed me the picture I had been searching for.

It was a clear image, sharp, bright, and uncompromisingly true. At that instant I knew I would become a writer, and would spend my life searching for truth.

“You don’t have to explain,” I said, stepping away from Papa’s chair. “I know.”

Then I walked around the table into the arms of my real mother, and felt her dark, magnolia-scented hair droop against my cheek.