Excerpt from Across Many Winters: a novel
Iced over with fog, misshapen timbers at the highest ridges rear up like frozen skeletons against a brindle sky. Ezra parks the rental car on the slick hardtop and strikes out across the crusted snow. It fills the lane to the tops of the fence posts. Every now and again, his boot breaks through, his leg plunging into the drifted white. Bouts of rushing air snatch up ice crystals and fling them into his face. Eyes watery, he gasps for air, pulls his scarf tighter around his neck, and tugs his hat more snuggly over his ears.
Callie rouses at the unexpected thump on the steps then the heavy footfalls across the porch. When Ezra stomps into the room and shoves the door shut behind him, she looks up and pushes Lela’s tablet under the frayed cushion beneath her. She stands and adjusts her glasses. “Ezra? Is that you?”
“Mom! My Lord, it’s cold!” He wraps his arms around her and kisses her cheek. “I’d forgotten how fierce winters are around here. Nothing like San Diego.”
“Oh! It ain’t nothing but a little cold spell. It’ll pass. Where’s Edna and that grand young’un of mine?”
“I left them at home. Logan just started kindergarten and Edna’s busy with her own work.” He removes his scarf, coat, and hat and hangs them on a nail.
“Can I fix you a bite to eat? Get you some coffee?”
“A cup of strong coffee would be good right now. Nothing else.”
She pours from a pot kept warm on the heater. “What in the world brings you home this time of the year?”
He pulls a chair closer to the stove. “It’s a quick trip. I’ve got to fly back tonight. I came to check up on you, Mom. Izzy, Joan, and Anna are worried. They’re afraid for you to stay here by yourself.”
“Afraid for me? They ain’t no reason for them to be worried about me. I’ve survived many a winter here. I reckon I can manage a few more on my own.”
He looks at her. A lump builds in his chest. Still gathered into a tight bun at the base of her neck, her hair is streaked with gray. Her gnarled, arthritic, blue-veined hands hang limp at her sides, and her shoulders stoop. The creases at the corners of her mouth and eyes have deepened. Her skin sags fish-belly white around sockets filled with faded blue eyes.
Izzy’s Christmas card simply said: This winter’s been the worst in a long time. Mom still lives at the old home place. We can’t get her to leave. Maybe she’ll listen to you. After the first of the year, he’d taken some time off, left Edna and Logan to fend for themselves for a day or two, and flown to Roanoke.
"Mom, you' re ninety-eight years old, the snow’s too deep. Such high winds and low temperatures are dangerous for a person your age. This house is too drafty for you to stay here."
“Now, that’s a bunch of foolishness. I got plenty of coal. They’s wood ricked right outside the back door, the cellars full of canned goods, and the cistern brims with water. The toilet ain’t too far away, and I can use a slop jar if the snow gets too deep. Besides, where would I go?”
“You could move in with any one of your children. They’d be glad to make your life a little easier. Why don’t you fly back to California with me and stay at least until spring? It’s warm out there. Edna and Logan would love to have you come.”
“California! I ain’t got no hankering to go to California. Like your daddy used to say, I reckon I really would stand out like a white bean in a black cat’s ass out in California. No son, I reckon I’ll stay right here.”
Tears fill his eyes and spill down his cheeks. She cups his chin in her hands, and thumbs them away. “I’ve always loved all my young’uns, Ezra, even Eva Rose as ornery as she is sometimes, but you’ve always held a special place in my heart – so withdrawed I never knowed you was around half the time, a lot like your Aunt Lela who died a long time ago. Don’t cry for me, son. They ain’t no reason to. These mountains and this old house is mostly where all my recollections is. I’ll die here and be buried in the Fogelsong graveyard next to your daddy.”
Near dusk, he gathers the eggs, milks the cow, hauls in coal, wood, and water, stokes up the fire, and looks at her with an ache in his chest.
He whiles away the afternoon with her. The wind raps at the doors and taps at the windows. Snow churns across the fields and beats against the side of the house. Near dusk, he gathers the eggs, milks the cow, hauls in coal, wood, and water, stokes up the fire, and looks at her with an ache in his chest. “It breaks my heart to leave you here, Mom. Won’t you change your mind and come with me?”
“No. I don’t want to go nowheres else.”
She watches from the window as he passes beneath the oak and disappears into a cloud of swirling white. She settles into Pearly’s rocker behind the stove, her mind wandering back through the years, to the cove. She slips Lela’s well-thumbed tablet from beneath her cushion and flips through the pages till she comes to the poem that she’d overlooked until a year after Lela’s death.
my dear sweet Blake
beckons, come join me,
in this silent white-black
night of endless sleep
Weak winter light, overcome by early darkness, fades, and the room grows dim. The fire dies low and a chill creeps in. She pulls a quilt from the bed and drapes it around her shoulders. A rafter pops in the attic. There’s a squeak in the back bedroom as though someone is rising from a bed with rusty springs. A loose board creaks, the door latch clicks, and the quilt across her shoulders dimples. She looks up when she feels warmth near her left ear. “Lela? Momma? Is that you?”
On a sunny afternoon in early May two years later, Ezra stands in the middle of the cold front room. He gets the uncanny feeling that he’s just stepped into an old black and white photo, while his mother has just stepped out of it. Her black lace-up shoes poke from beneath the fringes of the bleached chenille bedspread. Her tattered black Bible lies on a dusty table in the corner. Faded curtains fall limp at the cobwebbed window. Flyspecked pictures hang on sooty walls beneath a smoky ceiling, and the half filled coalscuttle still rests beside the heater.
In the kitchen, her cast iron skillet squats over the front eye of the cook stove. A blackened pot sits beside it. At the back, her chipped, white-enameled coffee pot waits to be filled with grounds and water. The oven door screeches when he cracks it open to peep inside, half expecting to see a browning pan of biscuits, but only the half horseshoe rusts on the middle rack near the back. Nicked white dishes stack in the cupboards and mouse droppings sprinkle around the salt and pepper shakers and the dried up jam and jelly jars still sitting on the table. Crocks of spices, bottles of herbs, and an old Clabber Girl Baking Powder tin crowd a narrow ledge in back of the stove. Her brass kettle humps like a sleeping turtle beneath the shelf.
When he steps into the back room, a lump rises in his throat, for sunbeams pool on the round braided rug between the beds, and each bed is covered with one of her crazy quilts. Her navy blue dress hangs from a rusted nail on the wall. The black pocketbook that Eva Rose had given her for Elbert’s funeral sits on the floor inches from its hem. He runs his hands over its dusty shoulders and fingers its buttons and seams. He gathers the dress in his fists and buries his face in the faded cotton, seeking the faintest of her smells.