Lisa Margonelli

1971. Maine. Six years old. I wore a red snowsuit. Winter came in October. The wind sighed and whistled, picked up speed across the field and hit the corner of the house so it groaned. At night the crabapple tree clawed the walls. From my bed I saw flashes of yellow and assumed the wind was holding its hard eye to the window, like a wolf assessing a doll’s house.

The wind did not just eat you, it wanted you to give yourself to it. Gray men in trucks drove slowly past the windows looking in with sideways eyes. “Got any guns to sell?” they asked my father. He said no, and they drove away, returning some other day, sideways again. Maybe they expected to grab something if it fell off the house.

My parents were American Gothic in hippie clothes. They moved from the suburbs “back” to the land. But the farm had a longer memory. The bean farmer came for a visit and stood under the bare trees in front of the house talking to my father. I liked the farmer’s head, which was shiny and folded in on itself exactly like a dried bean. He was short and his arms were stumpy with skin like a potato. Badaydows, he said. Before he farmed beans, he farmed badaydows, and before that chickens. Corn before that. The fields were full of rocks. Everything had failed. Then his wife left him. About that time he started feeding the raccoons on the kitchen counter.

He sold the farm, and now his wife had gotten back together with him. They lived in a little government-funded house and his wife worked at the hospital and smoked a lot of cigarettes.

The bean farmer looked at the wind gathering in the field and said that in the winter the wind blew so hard he just closed off the whole north end of the house. “Ay-uh,” he said, “I says to that wind, I says I’ll make you a baaargain—you get the whole nuuth end of the house, I says, and leave tha rest a us alone.” He ended with a laugh that turned into a cough and then into a snort. Now that he’d sold the farm, the bean farmer didn’t have anything to do—anybody driving by his new house could see his bean head silhouetted in the picture window.

The bus dropped me off a quarter mile away from the house and the darkness chased me home from there. The woods on the edge of the fields became darker and the black trees leeched the light from the sky with their long capillary branches. By the time I got to the top of the hill, I’d run diagonally across the final field towards the house, where I could see a bare bulb burning in the kitchen. Inside the doors (there were two—one was the “mud” room, unheated and full of bootjacks and winter clothes) the kitchen was warm and my mother stood sauteeing onions in her electric skillet, singing songs to my baby sister who lay in a bed on the floor. My mother’s world was warm and serene. Fragrant. Complete.

In November it snowed. And then it snowed again. It didn’t stop snowing for days. The town plows drove all through the night and through the next day. During heavy snow storms the watchful gray men in the cabs were the only people we saw. And during the night the yellow lights on top of the plows would flash across the snow and into my window. The chains on their tires clanked. They were large birds come to look after us.

At Christmas the snow was too deep for my father to cut a Christmas tree. Buying one was not the kind of thing we did so we planned for none. My mother hung her handmade ornaments—eggs covered with lace, felt camels and elephants, around the kitchen. On Christmas Eve one of the plow men showed up with a fir tree he’d cut on his rounds. He sat with my father, drinking coffee and applejack, as the snow melted from the tree and the boughs began to point upward.

In January snow fell, and the wind smoothed it and beat it down. Then more snow fell. Then the wind blew again and smoothed it down so it was packed hard. Then the sun came out and melted the top layer of the snow just a bit. Then it froze again to a crust. Then the wind blew.

I walked up the hill from the bus stop carrying my lunchbox. The birches looked expectant; the shadows were low. The snow banks were high. The light narrowed. I still cut across the field towards the house, but now I had to climb up the snow bank—which was about three times my height—teeter on the top, and then slide down the other side to the crusted, hard-packed field. I put my foot on the crust and it held. I swung my other foot around and put it down. Then I shifted my weight onto that foot. The snow pack crunched but it held. I scurried about ten or twelve steps. Before I went further, I looked back—the snowbank was just a small bunch of saw teeth. Behind that the mashed potato hill of Mount Kathadin was the height of a coffee table. Suddenly I was a giant.

I was near halfway across the field when my foot broke through the crust and sank into the soft snow beneath. I pulled my boot out through the hole, and moved again. The next foot sank too, and the crusty hole grabbed my boot and yanked it off of my foot which let snow fall into my boot. The crust scratched my ankle and drew little spots of cold blood mixed with melting snow. With every step through the crust I got more angry and my feet got more cold. Finally, I flopped down on my stomach and started to slide across the field. The wind picked me up and pushed me, using my snowsuit as a sail. I held my head up and moved my arms like a crab and zipped quickly across the crust. I was a reverse glacier, a snow crab. The field was full of dips and rises, and I slid over them and the crust made a little whirring sound against the long zipper of my snowsuit. I started to tilt my arms so that I sailed from side to side. I was a plane, a snow sailor; more importantly, I had gotten the better of the snow.

My parents saw me sailing across the field, and they came out to the corner of the house to cheer me on. My father’s red cap made him into a match stick. Their voices were tiny, reflected and absorbed by the snow. I raised my arm to wave.

And as I waved, my lunchbox sailed away under its own power. At first it was funny to watch it swing from one little snow hill to the other. It turned so that each of its cartoons were visible: first a picture of Tinkerbelle, and then the sparkling city of Disneyland, then those strange bears playing a washboard and a jug, and then.... And then I heard my father’s voice, the tiny bird, saying, “Catch it.” And so I started to slide towards the lunchbox with my arm out. It paused on the top of a drift to wait for me, and as I got close it took off again, drifting down the other diagonal of the field, away from the house. I slid after it, admiring the bears, the glittering city, the strangeness of it. And again the lunchbox seemed to play with me, waiting. Just as I drew close it took off again. I could hear my parents’ voices in my head; “We don’t have money to waste,” and I felt their urgency. And when the lunchbox took off again, with me after it, ever closer to the dark woods on the far side of the field, I started to cry with frustration, but my tears froze to my face. There was no question of turning around, of coming back without the lunch box. Urgency.

My parents’ bird voices yelled encouragement. The snow was pink with sunset, and the woods were giving the coldness you feel when you open a deep freeze on a hot day—except that it was already cold. Somewhere near the woods I caught up with Disneyland, and grabbed it. And the moment I touched that swirling vision of glittering cities and animatronic bears, it became only—only a lunchbox. I didn’t feel satisfaction, merely relief, and then I started to claw my way across the field on my stomach. My frozen tears chafed my cheeks. As the light failed the snow began to glow. I thought about the characters—Mickey Mouse and Tinkerbelle and those bears who lived in Disneyland. They were not funny. They were just stupid cartoons.

And all the while I clawed my way across that huge field with my hands and stomach, like some kind of pilgrim heading towards the Jorkhang temple in Lhasa. I would do anything to enter, to earn the right to live in my parents’ warmly lit world. If I looked like I was performing penance, I was. As I scrabbled up the field, the snow began to glow underneath me, taking on the supernatural light of faith and self-invention that Disneyland can’t match. This crawl became something legendary, something more than it was, something to be remembered, to talk about, a peg against the forces of time and forgetting—a marker in the snowfield of insignificance. But me, really, at that moment, I was just a child adrift on a slowly darkening field, with the cold wind picking up.

One morning in February I missed the bus, which was disappearing just as I reached the bus stop. I ran after it, screaming, shaking my hands, already stiff with cold. The bus’s windows were frosted over and it sped on. In my anger (and in a paranoia that had been developing—you are not from here, you are from “out”) I thought that they’d deliberately left me behind.

I started the long walk home, but my hands and feet already ached with cold. As I walked, my hands passed from aching, to stinging pain, to numbness. I pulled my hands back into my snowsuit, with the mittens still on. My arms became cold to the elbow. Like icicles, they were something I carried. My face was so cold it couldn’t move. And my feet were lumpen, like Herman Munster’s. The frozen landscape, hoping for equilibrium, was claiming the parts of my body that it could. Then waiting for the rest.

When I finally got home, my mother was shocked to see me. I didn’t cry until I got in the door, and even then I couldn’t seem to move my face. My mother had to take me out of my clothes because my hands wouldn’t move. “Jesus Christ,” she said, “you’re fucking frozen. Christ.” Her voice choked, I think. My feet started to tingle once she took off my boots and massaged them. They were a color that didn’t belong to me—pale and translucent. They hurt. She had me stand on a chair and hold my frozen hands under lukewarm water until the feeling came back and when it did, the cool water felt warm. The feelings, like the aching and the numbness, got all mixed up. All opposite. My hands looked like quicksilver flashing in the water.

My mother touched my cool white feet. She couldn’t take me to the hospital because it was so cold the car wouldn’t start. She became silent. She didn’t sing. When she coo-ed to my sister it didn’t sound right. She bit her lip. Her voice stayed cheerful towards me, but just like the feelings of warm and cold, I could no longer trust my perceptions.

That night I took a shower, screaming when the warm water hit my feet and opened up my capillaries. The shock of full circulation was horrible. I started to learn, like the bean farmer, to shut down, to conserve, to run less blood through my extremities. But I kept that to myself, as my mother kept her worry to herself. She watched me and she bit her lip. I watched her and I bit mine. The warm light—that fragile bulb where everything was complete—was gone.

A few days later someone thawed the car out with a blowtorch.

Lisa Margonelli writes in Oakland, California, where it never snows. Her first book, Oil On the Brain, is published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (hardcover) and by Broadway Books (trade paperback). Buy it here.

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