We present our top pick of this season’s Richard and Judy Book Club with an exclusive extract of The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
The next evening, the snow fell with dusk. The first flakes clumped together as they twirled and fluttered to the ground. First just a few here and there, and then the air was filled with falling snow, caught in the light of the window in dreamy swirls. It brought to Mabel’s mind how it was to be a little girl, kneeling on a sofa at the window to watch winter’s first snowflakes filter through the streetlights.
When she returned to the kitchen window later, she saw Jack emerge from the woods and move through the snow. His hunt had been unsuccessful; she knew by his low head and shuffle.
She went back to preparing dinner. She opened the calico curtains over the kitchen shelves and took out two plates. She spread the tablecloth. She thought of the Bensons’ cluttered cabin and smiled to herself. Esther in her men’s overalls – how confidently she strode into the kitchen and flung the dead turkey onto the counter. Mabel had never met a woman like her. She did not quietly take her leave or feign helplessness or cloak her opinions in niceties.
Last night, George had told the story of how Esther shot a nine-foot grizzly bear in the yard several summers ago. She was home alone when she heard a loud thumping. When she looked outside, she saw a bear trying to break into the barn. The grizzly stood on his hind legs and slammed his massive paws again and again into the wooden door. Then he dropped to all fours, paced, and put his snout to the logs and snuffled. Mabel would have been terrified, but not Esther. She was spitting mad. No bear was going to get her cows. She calmly walked inside and got a rifle, stepped back into the yard and promptly shot the bear. Mabel could see her perfectly – Esther standing in the dirt, her feet slightly apart, her aim steady. Never one to hesitate or worry herself with decorum.
Mabel was at the window again. The snow fell faster and thicker. As she watched, Jack walked out of the barn carrying a lantern, and the snow eddied around him in the circle of light. He turned his head, as if he had sensed her eyes on him, and the two of them looked at each other across the distance, each in their pocket of light, snow like a falling veil between them. Mabel couldn’t remember the last time they had so deliberately gazed at each other, and the moment was like the snow, slow and drifting.
When she first fell in love with Jack, she had dreamed she could fly, that on a warm, inky black night she had pushed off the grass with her bare feet to float among the leafy treetops and stars in her nightgown. The sensation had returned.
Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched.
She stood spellbound in her apron, a washrag in her hand. Perhaps it was the recollection of that dream, or the hypnotic nature of the spinning snow. Maybe it was Esther in her overalls and flowered blouse, shooting bears and laughing out loud.
Mabel set down the rag and untied her apron. She slipped her feet into her boots, put on one of Jack’s wool coats, and found a hat and some mittens.
Outside, the air was clean and cool against her face, and she could smell the wood smoke from the chimney. She let the snow float around her, and then Mabel did what she had as a child – turned her face to the sky and stuck out her tongue. The swirl overhead was dizzying and she began to spin slowly in place. The snowflakes landed on her cheeks and eyelids, wet her skin. Then she stopped and watched the snow settle on the arms of her coat. For a moment she studied the pattern of a single starry flake before it melted into the wool. Here, and then gone.
Around her feet the snow deepened. She kicked at it lightly, and it clumped, wet and heavy. Snowball snow. She clenched a fistful in her bare hand. The snow compacted and held the shape of her fingers. She pulled on her mittens and balled some snow together, patting and forming it.
She heard Jack’s footsteps and looked up to see him coming toward the cabin. He squinted at her. She so rarely came outside, and never at night. His reaction spurred in her an unpredictable, childish desire. She patted the snowball a few more times, watched Jack and waited. As he neared, she threw it at him, and even as the snowball left her hand, she knew it was an outlandish thing to do and she wondered what would happen next. The snowball thumped into his leg, just above the top of his boot.
He stopped, looked at the circle of snow on his pant leg and then up at Mabel, a mix of irritation and confusion on his face, and then even as his brow stayed furrowed, a small smile appeared at the corner of his lips. He bent and carefully lodged the lantern in the snow beside him, then smacked his gloved hand across the pant leg, dusting away the snow. Mabel held her breath. He remained bent over, his hand down by his boots, and then, quicker than Mabel could react, he scooped up a handful of snow and tossed a perfectly formed snowball at her. It smacked her in the forehead. She stood motionless with her arms at her sides. Neither of them spoke. The snow fell around them, on the tops of their heads and their shoulders. Mabel wiped the wet snow from her forehead and saw Jack, his mouth open.
‘I . . . that’s not . . . I hadn’t meant to—’
And she laughed. Melting snow dripped down her temples, snowflakes landed on her eyelashes. She laughed and laughed until she was doubled over, and then she grabbed another handful of snow and threw it at Jack, and he threw one back, and the snowballs lobbed through the air. Most of them fell at each other’s feet, but sometimes they softly thumped into shoulders and chests. Laughing, they chased each other around the cabin, dodging behind the log corners and peeking out in time to see another snowball coming. The hem of Mabel’s long skirt dragged in the snow. Jack chased her, a snowball in each hand. She tripped and fell and as he ran to her she flung loose snow at him, all the time laughing, and he gently tossed the snowballs down at her. Then he put his hands to his knees, bent at the back and breathing loudly.
‘We’re too old for this,’ he said.
He reached down and pulled Mabel to her feet until they stood chest to chest, panting and smiling and covered in snow. Mabel pressed her face into his damp collar and he wrapped his arms, thick with his wool coat, around her shoulders. They stood that way for a while, letting the snow fall down upon them.
Then Jack pulled away, brushed snow from his wet hair and reached for the lantern.
‘Wait,’ she said. ‘Let’s make a snowman.’
‘A snowman. It’s perfect. Perfect snow for a snowman.’
He hesitated. He was tired. It was late. They were too old for such nonsense. There were a dozen reasons not to, Mabel knew, but instead he set the lantern back in the snow.
‘All right,’ he said. There was reluctance in the hang of his head, but he pulled off his leather work gloves. He took her cheek in his bare hand and with his thumb wiped melted snow from beneath her eye.
The snow was perfect. It stuck in thick layers as they rolled it into balls along the ground. Mabel made the last, smallest one for the head, and Jack stacked them one atop the other. The figure barely stood above his waist.
‘It’s kind of small,’ he said.
She stepped back and inspected it from a distance.
‘It’s just fine,’ she said.
They patted snow into the cracks between the snowballs, smoothed the edges. He walked away from the light of the lantern and cabin window, into a stand of trees. He came back with two birch branches, and he stuck one into each side of their creation. Now it had arms.
‘A girl. Let’s make it a little girl,’ she said.
She knelt and began shaping the bottom into a skirt that spread out from the snow girl. She slid her hands upward, shaving away the snow and narrowing the outline until it looked like a little child. When she stood up, she saw Jack at work with a pocketknife.
‘There,’ he said. He stepped back. Sculpted in the white snow were perfect, lovely eyes, a nose and small, white lips. She even thought she could see cheekbones and a little chin.
‘You don’t like it?’ He sounded disappointed.
‘No. Oh no. She’s beautiful. I just didn’t know . . .’
How could she speak her surprise? Such delicate features, formed by his calloused hands, a glimpse at his longing. Surely he, too, had wanted children. They had talked about it so often when they first married, joking they would have a baker’s dozen but really planning on only three or four. What fun Christmas would be with a household full of little ones, they told each other their first quiet winter together. There was an air of solemnity as they opened each other’s presents, but they believed someday their Christmas mornings would reel with running children and squeals of delight. She sewed a small stocking for their firstborn and he sketched plans for a rocking horse he would build. Maybe the first would be a girl, or would it be a boy? How could they have known that twenty years later they would still be childless, just an old man and an old woman alone in the wilderness?
As they stood together, the snow fell heavier and faster making it difficult to see more than a few feet.
‘She needs some hair,’ he said.
‘Oh. I’ve thought of something, too.’
Jack went toward the barn, Mabel to the cabin.
‘Here they are,’ she called across the yard when she came back out. ‘Mittens and a scarf for the little girl.’
He returned with a bundle of yellow grass from near the barn. He stuck individual strands into the snow, creating wild, yellow hair, and she wrapped the scarf around its neck and placed the mittens on the ends of the birch branches, the red string that joined them across the snow child’s back. Her sister had knitted them in red wool, and the scarf was a stitch Mabel had never seen before – dewdrop lace, her sister called it. Through the broad pattern, Mabel could see white snow.
She ran to a corner of the cabin where a wild cranberry bush grew. She picked a handful of the frozen berries, returned to the snow girl, and carefully squeezed the juice onto her lips. The snow there turned a gentle red.
She and Jack stood side by side and gazed at their creation.
‘She’s beautiful,’ she said. ‘Don’t you think? She’s beautiful.’
‘She did turn out, didn’t she?’
Standing still, she became aware of the cold through her damp clothes and trembled.
She shook her head.
‘Let’s go in and warm up.’
Mabel didn’t want it to end. The quiet snow, the closeness. But her teeth began to chatter. She nodded.
Inside, Jack added several birch logs to the woodstove and the fire crackled. Mabel stood as close as she dared and peeled off wet mittens, hat, coat. He did the same. Clumps of snow fell onto the stovetop and sizzled. Her dress hung heavy and wet against her skin, and she unbuttoned it and stepped out of it. He unlaced his boots and pulled his damp shirt off over his head. Soon they were naked and shivering beside each other. She was unaware of their bare skin until he stepped closer and she felt his rough hand at the small of her back.
‘Better?’ he asked.
She reached up over his shoulders where his skin was still cool to the touch, and when she pressed her nose into the crook of his neck, melted snow clung in droplets to his beard.
‘Let’s go to bed,’ Jack said.
After all these years, still a spot within her fluttered at his touch, and his voice, throaty and hushed in her ear, tickled along her spine. Naked, they walked to the bedroom. Beneath the covers, they fumbled with each other’s bodies, arms and legs, backbones and hip bones, until they found the familiar, tender lines like the creases in an old map that has been folded and refolded over the years.
After, they lay together, Mabel’s cheek against his chest.
‘You won’t really go to the mine, will you?’
He put his lips to the top of her head.
‘I don’t know, Mabel,’ he whispered into her hair. ‘I’m doing the best I can.’
Jack woke to the cold. In the few hours he’d slept the weather had changed. He could smell it and feel it in his arthritic hands. He propped himself on an elbow and grabbed at the nightstand until he found a match and lit the candle. His back and shoulders were stiff as he eased his legs over the side of the bed. He sat on the edge of the mattress until the cold was unbearable. Not far from the pillow where Mabel slept, frost crept between the logs with its feathery crystals. He swore quietly and pulled the quilt up over her shoulder. A warm, secure home – he couldn’t even give her that much. He carried the candleholder into the main room. The heavy metal door on the woodstove clanged noisily as he opened it. A few coals smoldered in the ash.
As he reached for his boots, through the window he saw a flicker. He stood at the frost-edged glass and peered out.
Fresh snow blanketed the ground and glittered and glowed silver in the moonlight. The barn and trees beyond were muted outlines. There, at the edge of the forest, he saw it again. A flash of blue and red. He was groggy with sleep. He closed his eyes slowly, opened them again and tried to focus.
There it was. A little figure dashed through the trees. Was that a skirt about the legs? A red scarf at the neck, and white hair trailing down the back. Slight. Quick. A little girl. Running at the edge of the forest. Then disappearing into the trees.
Jack rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. Not enough sleep – that had to be it. Too many long days. He left the window and stepped into his boots, leaving the laces untied. He opened the door and the chill air sucked the breath out of him. The snow crunched beneath his boots as he walked to the woodpile. It was only as he was returning with an armload of split birch that he noticed their little snow girl. He set the wood on the ground and with empty arms went to where it had stood. In its place was a small, broken heap of snow. The mittens and scarf were gone.
He pushed at the snow with the toe of his boot.
An animal. Maybe a moose had stumbled through. But the scarf and mittens? A raven or a whiskey jack maybe. Wild birds had been known to snatch things. As he turned away, he caught sight of the tracks. Moonlight fell in the hollows. The prints ran through the snow, away from the cabin and into the trees. He bent over them. The silvery blue light was weak, so at first he didn’t trust his eyes. Coyote, or maybe lynx. Something other than this. He bent closer and touched the track with the tips of his bare fingers. Human footprints. Small. The size of a child’s.
Jack shivered. His skin prickled with goose bumps, and his bare toes ached cold inside his boots. He left the tracks and the pile of snow, stacked the wood in the crook of his arm, and went inside, quickly closing the door behind him. As he shoved each piece of wood into the stove, he wondered if the racket would wake Mabel. Just his eyes playing tricks. It would come to sense in the morning. He stayed beside the woodstove until the fire roared again, and then he closed the damper.
He eased himself beneath the quilt and against Mabel’s warm body, and she moaned softly in her sleep but did not wake. Jack lay beside her, his eyes wide and his brain spinning until finally he drifted into a kind of sleep that wasn’t much different than wakefulness, a mystifying, restless sleep where dreams fell and melted like snowflakes, where children ran softfooted through the trees and scarves flapped between black raven beaks.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (£7.99, Headline)