“The Unfastening of Winter” by Cris Mulvey

“Rising” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 36″ x 36″

Alice stretched her tired body and dropped heavily onto the straight-backed chair at the side of the open casket. She ran calloused hands through dull-blond hair and pressed her palms, just for a moment, against her eyes, steeling her mind against the silence. You’re free now. So…will you?

It was as if someone else had spoken, this unexpected voice inside her head. She looked sharply around the room. It was empty. There was only her husband’s body laid out before her, his face gray, but pain-free; the picture of the Sacred Heart above it; and herself, poised stiffly on the edge of this hard, little chair.

The Sacred Heart seemed to stare at her, a bit like the Mona Lisa, she thought. No matter which way she shifted to try to change the light, his eyes followed her. The voice in her head said it again. “Free, at last. So….will you?” It became like a mantra. It kept time with the tick-tock-tick of the old clock on the mantelpiece. “Free now. Free now. Free. Will you go now? Go now? Go?”

She focused on Matt’s face. This face that had lain beside her all the nights of thirty years, even those of the last ten, when he’d been bed-ridden, unable to move, paralyzed from the neck down, from a fall on the train tracks at work. It wasn’t that she hated him, she thought, swallowing. It was that she felt absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.

“It’s a kind face,” she mused, searching for a feeling, “a warm one, one that lit up often with smiling.”

“He’s a man who’s done his best, all the days of his life” her father had said once, reprimanding her. ” A man who loves you.”

“Enough for both of us,” Matt had said, the day he’d asked her to marry him.

“And you loved your sons” she said aloud now, to try to make herself feel it,

so hard they brought tears to your eyes, in good times and bad.” She sighed. She still felt nothing, Nothing at all.

Her eyes moved down his body. His hands were large as spades, from his work as an electrician for the railroad. Pale and purplish, knob-knuckled and rough-skinned, they lay limply now, folded across his chest. She remembered the feel of them on her skin, their first night, the way they’d grasped at her breasts, pulled at them, how they had closed tight on her shoulders at the end; her feeling of being taken. She had lain there afterwards, thinking about another man, a man who had taught her what it had felt like to open, to surrender; to pour herself, body and soul, like a river into an ocean, like milk into an urn.

~

She’d seen Doug first at a rodeo, three hundred miles away in the eastern part of the state. Black-haired and strong, his eyes, the color of wild phlox, narrowing each time he looked at her, flashing like the sun does on the rough edges of broken ice. Each time something inside her had shimmered. She watched him later, moving with the horses he was loading, his body loose with the out of doors, built to work under wide Montana skies, not in its dried out little towns.

Their first evenings together, at the end of her father’s corral, he had whispered to her of the ways of the wind high up there in the mountains, had dared her to cross the fence, cajoling her to leave her world of pianos and china and little lace doilies, just for an evening. When she declined, he told her he’d wait for her behind the chapel on Sunday, and that he’d show her the places God really lived. So she feigned illness at the start of her papa’s sermon and left for air. He helped her up behind him and immediately they were galloping, out across the mountain-side of the town’s white fences, out to the prairie’s tides washed up against sudden reefs, where there were no fences, only the smell of sage and pine, the ice-cold splash of rock-strewn creeks, the secret dens of animals who lived without fetters.

They’d had six months, six secret months of wild riding across open grassland, six months of him reading to her philosophy and poetry, six months of wet kissing, pressed first up against the rough, flaked bark of spruce trees, later, sprawled on the prickling forest floor. Six months where he’d awakened her as rain does soil and planted in her a new sense of what was possible.

It was a deathly cold winter’s night when the stone he threw woke her – and her papa. It had ended then and there. She remembered the long, slow wail of the train, as it pulled out of town, taking him eastwards. She could see it still, snaking its way out across the prairie, the prairie that stretched in waves like the ocean, waves which that evening were tinted hues of pink and purple, stained by the light of the dying sun. She crept into the frozen fields to do her weeping.

~

A year later, these hands that lay limp now beside her, had taken hold of her and made her a wife.

She had thought about bolting the first day he’d brought her to this town, to the very house where he’d grown up, a house full of the photos and mementos of a family she must now call her own. It was a bigger town than her hometown, but its streets were narrower and its houses smaller. There were no trees to break the dreariness, no views, only the rounded looming shapes of mountains, pressing around her from all sides, crowding out the great expanse of sky. All her life, it had been sky that had soothed her, helped her lungs expand, helped her to breathe. Here, there was almost no sky.

It would have been easy. The train passed behind the fence of their tiny backyard. She could have hopped on it any day, as it slowed its pace to move through town, slipped into one of its carriages, and ridden it ‘til it left this mountain valley far behind. She could have stayed aboard until, turning east across the open prairies; it left even the endless plains behind eventually and began to move between buildings, taller than the wheat silos of her home town, high above streets that danced, not just with the hard green of cottonwoods, but with the soft spread of maple leaves, and the creamy, rose-colored froth of cherry blossom.

But she didn’t.

The boys had come. First Tom. Born whimpering. She remembered the grasp of his hands too, their gripping at her hair, their reluctance ever to let her go. Robert, born a year later had, from the start, sucked at life, not her. He was distant, contained, utterly independent. She adored him.

What she remembers most about those long winters was the unceasing whine of the wind sweeping down from the mountain tops, whipping itself around the outside of the house. Hearing to it, she could think only of the barren, snow-locked flanks of Mt Heron, that beast of a mountain that rose six thousand feet above her window, where even the wolves had to shelter from the cold, from the unbroken, bone-shattering lonesomeness. She would picture the snowfields up there, their top layers shimmering with crystals, burning with starlight, the rocks far below, cracking and splitting beneath their weight of ice, the vast black bowl of the glistening night upended above it all. Sometimes the mountains held her in the immensity of their embrace. Sometimes, it was as though she held them, as though far inside her, in the place of her heart perhaps, or her womb, was a world of pure and dark and ice-cold beauty, lit only by the purple fire of the stars, quite untouched by human feeling.

The clock on the mantelpiece above Matt’s casket chimed loudly. Five o’clock. Another 30 minutes and the evening train, carrying her oldest son, would be pulling in. The clock drew her back to a day she’d spent the last ten years trying to forget. It had sounded just like this the very moment the last living thing inside her died.

Tom had arrived unexpectedly from Bozeman, where he and Robert had been studying. Walking straight into the living room, he waited for his parents to follow. He did not speak until they were seated. Something about his eyes had stopped her heart. The clock began to chime.

“Robert’s dead,” Tom said. “…a car crash. Early this morning. He was drunk.”

After that, all she remembered was the chiming. The sound of it just went on and on in her head. She sat there listening to it. Tom and Matt were talking, she thought. Crying maybe. She just listened to the clock’s voice, to the echoes it made through the silence of the house.

That evening she found herself alone. Matt was at work. Tom was out, making funeral arrangements, taking care of business, acting responsibly. She made her way upstairs. She pulled out the suitcase she had brought from home all those years ago. She put it on the bed and began to pack. “When they come back,” she thought, “I’ll be gone. I’ll figure out where when I’m on the train. It really doesn’t matter. East somewhere, somewhere there’s a college, a library, and a whole lot of pretty trees.”

The wind was cold. A waning moon sailed in and out of bits of angry cloud, never spilling light for long. She had been waiting in the unlit lane by the station trying not to be seen. When the train pulled in she would walk briskly through the turnstile and climb aboard. She would buy the ticket down the line.

She heard the familiar whistle, signaling the train’s passage through town. She bent to lift her suitcase, rising suddenly to a swirl of light from a car pulling in to the station yard. A car door slammed. Footsteps, hasty, on the gravel. She gripped her suitcase, turned away, walking through the turnstile and onto the platform, earlier than she had wanted. She looked southwards anxiously, towards the approaching train.

 A man came up behind her. He was out of breath. She didn’t look around.

 “Mom?” she froze. “MOM!”

 “It’s Dad. He’s had a fall. It’s bad.”

The train’s brakes screeched to a halt. A door opened right in front of her, pouring light across the platform. She moved towards it. She placed her foot on the step. The light was yellow on her shoe.

“He’s in the hospital. They can’t wake him … They think he’s paralyzed … from the neck down.”

She pulled herself into the corridor of the train and turned into a carriage. It was empty. She sat in the seat by the door. She took off her hat. She placed her suitcase by the wall beneath the window. She took off her scarf, her gloves, laid them on top. Then she gazed for one long moment east.

With the first shudder of the carriage she stood up, smoothed her coat and left the train, its gathering speed causing her to almost turn her ankle as she leapt. Her eldest son’s hand steadied her.

“Take me to him.”

From the car she saw the moonlight catch the roof of the train as it made its way out of town. On the other side of the tracks, the snow at the top of Mt Heron glinted and flared. Then a bank of cloud totally swallowed the moon.

~

That was ten years ago. Ten years! She’d counted again this afternoon when, emptying the urinal down the toilet, she had heard him call. Once, twice, a third time:

 “Alice. A-lice. Ple—e—-e—ase…”

Despite the mounting panic in his voice she’d pretended not to hear, listening instead to the tin-like notes the urine made sprinkling against the water of the toilet bowl. She listened to it echo, almost musically, through the silence of the house. She noted the color. Too dark. She’d have to bring him more liquids. Later. She’d been all day in and out of that room. She knew he wasn’t doing well, but, well, she couldn’t breathe. Rubbing the condensation from the inside of the bathroom window, the outline of Mt Heron appeared blurred against the evening sky. She let herself gaze at its highest slopes. She sucked them in. A sudden flurry of hail hit the tiny pane like a fistful of gravel and she started. She’d go later. Just a little later. It was time for dinner.

Alone in the steamed up warmth of her kitchen, the crackling of the wood-stove, the drone of the late afternoon radio, the sweet knowledge that not even the telephone could get to her here, she let a long, slow breath expand her ribs, then let it out. She couldn’t afford to let herself think. She hummed to the tunes that came and went on the radio. Frowning in the half-light at a recipe book, she washed, sliced, cut, diced, flung the vegetables into a casserole, flung the casserole into the stove and turned immediately to baking.

The hard slipperiness of the butter yielded beneath her fingertips. The cool softness of the flour ran across her palms. She rubbed, squeezed, kneaded, rolled, her eyes following the trickle of melting snow, as it slid pencil-thin runways down the opaque windows. Outside, she knew, Mt Heron stood, stood as it always did, stood as she stood in the midst of her life, immobile, expressionless, letting the seasons and the weathers come and go, untouched by any of it.

An hour later, she entered the bedroom to bring Matt his dinner. She found him lifeless, a dribble from his lower lip dried white against the stubble he had wanted her earlier to shave. She moved immediately to do what needed to be done.

The key in the door brought her back to the present. It was Tom. She lifted herself out of the chair to greet him. They hugged, briefly. She pulled away first and left him alone with Matt. In the kitchen she stood, hands on the cold edge of the sink, staring at the hump of Mt Heron through the net curtain. She thought of the high fields, their snow glinting in the starlight. Still, she felt nothing.

~                                       

It was the day after the funeral. Tom and she were returning from an after dinner walk. He’d been trying, all day, to talk her into leaving, into going back East with him back, back to where his wife and he had a place. They’d just turned off Main St. towards the house. The streets were deserted. The shadow of the mountain stood black against the evening sky.

Suddenly, Tom stopped and waved his arm at the streets and their buildings.

“Look at this place! It’s dark! Miserable! Empty! You can’t stay here alone. There’s nothing here for you. Not now.”

She couldn’t help a wry smile. She walked on. He caught up.

“Look, I know I’ve said it before, but it all makes sense. Mo and I have tons of room. You’ll have company, and you’ll have space. When you sell the old house, you’ll have money. Then you can figure out what you want.” His voice whined with frustration. “Just give it a try, will you?”

Alice said nothing. She was trying to picture those tree-lined city streets, the ones she’d dreamed of all those years, trying to see herself walking across a tree-filled campus, reading in an oak-shelved library, sipping coffee with friends, talking poetry. But none of it would come into focus. There was only the mountain, its snow-capped peak shining far above her. Her mind would go nowhere but there. She saw herself standing atop that north facing ridge, way up there at the top of the world, gazing down at this valley that had held her life. She had never been up the mountain. Suddenly she wanted to go. Tom stepped in front of her to peer into her eyes. “I’ll think about it, Tom,” she said. “I will. Now, I, for one, am going to bed.”

Alone in the attic at the top of the house, a place she sometimes slept alone, she stood gazing through the dormer window at Mt Heron. With a flourish she threw the windows open to the night and leaned out. Far below leaves were skittering down First Street, gusting in circles, gathering in the corners of fences, and settling. It was a wind she knew, a wind she watched for, year after year, the one, she believed, came to shiver the tops of things, and whisper to them to grow.

High above it all, Mt Heron glimmered, its peak and ragged edges white with moonlight, its crevices and the meadows where the tree cover grew, pooled in darkness. Watching the curve of its massive flank and the delicate arc of silvered snow across it, Alice felt a sudden opening. The friendless world that had leaned forever against her windowpanes seemed to lift, just a little. The mountain seemed to lean towards her.

“Perhaps,” she thought, sniffing the wind “perhaps, at last, winter is over. Perhaps now, Spring can finally come.”

She had no idea what that might mean. She knew only that she would not recognize it anywhere but here.

     

Cris Mulvey was born and raised in Ireland and spent the first half of her life as an educator, activist, and community organizer. Drawn by the beauty of wild nature and its power to feed, heal, and inspire, she moved to Montana where she began to write poetry, short stories, and memoir. Mulvey currently lives in Northern California with her husband Jack, a dog, and two cats. Her work has appeared in a number of journals, including the Naugatuk River Review, the Whitefish Review, Mobius, Last Night and Women’s Voices for Change.

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