WHEN IT FIRST STARTED COMING DOWN IT WAS BEAUTIFUL by Billy Irving

WHEN IT FIRST STARTED COMING DOWN IT WAS BEAUTIFUL by Billy Irving

I.

 

When it first started coming down it was beautiful. The flakes fell in large clumps, especially gentle in the air columns, but still heavy enough it seemed they should make a sound where they hit the ground. It had been cold, unseasonably so, on the Caldwells’ property the past few days. The surfaces of all things were cold, so right away a dusting began accumulating on the grasses, on the bushes, on the needles of the trees, then on the car, the mailbox, the birdbath, the shingles of the roof, and finally on the driveway and on the lonely road which stretched through the woods and cut contours along the curvature of the young hills. 

It wasn’t so often they got snow these days, not since they moved out here. When it snowed these days, it felt a bit like a treat. Walt reminded Millie about how, when they still lived in the northeast and the kids were little, how it would snow overnight and the kids would wake up late with half a foot already covering everything. Walt would tell the kids that it all came down not in flakes but in one continuous sheet. A six-inch-thick blanket of snow falling from the clouds all at once. That’s how it seemed anyway.

 

II.

 

Walt and Millie went to bed and woke up and it was still coming down just as hard and fast. Looked already like a foot or more and no sense it was letting up anytime soon. The snow stacked itself in goofy white walls along the tops of the railings, an impressive white hat atop the mailbox. Just the red points of Millie’s garden gnomes poking through the snow, except for the taller one, who was seated on a polka-dotted toadstool. Him, his wrinkling eyes and nose peeking out over the white, looking so Kilroy-like.

Millie gave the screen door a try and it wouldn’t budge an inch, just the top corner flexing outwards with a horrible scraping. Walt tried and pushed it open a crack but then the crick in his neck flared, and the stiffness in his back bubbled to the skin in that sickening way, the way that makes your heart quicken with worry. 

“Be careful dear, your subluxations,” Millie said.

They spent the morning watching the news and doing crosswords and quieting each other’s concerns about the weather reports.

“Something rare,” says The Weatherman. “An unstable polar vortex interacts with a low-pressure system off the coast. Think terms like jet stream, oscillation, La Niña. Flakes formed and nurtured in places unseen beyond the cumulous veil, where there is only harsh yellow sun and overwhelming blue and beneath it all an expanse of grey vapor stretching forever in all directions. Think waves of energy. Think of snow dumping. Something set in motion long ago, miles above the face of the Earth. Think dumping.”

The Weatherman describes the snow as dumping. Feathery bundles fall against all things and accumulate against all things, and besides that: the grey, and the cawing of invisible birds.

 

III.

 

In the afternoon they called the kids on the landline. Told them everything was fine, they love the snow and they’d hire someone, one of the neighbors, to come shovel as soon as it stopped and the roads were cleared.

“If you could just see it,” Millie said. “The way the sun’s coming through, the way it’s falling so, so quiet.”

“I wish you would think about moving in with us,” their eldest said.

Walt asked, and his daughter did remember how they’d wax the red metal rails of the old wooden sled together. How she’d fly down the snow-white golf course green, how that one time she flew all the way down the slope, shot straight between the sand traps and across the footbridge spanning the creek. “I don’t think I was even scared,” she said. “I think I even wanted to go again.”

Afterwards, to Millie, Walt said, “She was always so good at steering. The trick is the snow needs to be wet and heavy, just like today. Let’s take the grandkids sometime.”

 

IV.

 

The power went out at 5:27 PM, they knew because of the old plug-in analog they kept on the kitchen counter. Millie grabbed the box of matches and the flashlight from the drawer by the back door and lit the scented candles scattered throughout the house. Bergamot. Lavender. Cinnamon. Vanilla. Winter Cottage.

“It’ll come back on in a couple of hours,” Millie said.

“I don’t think it’s ever smelled so good in here,” Walt said.

 

V.

 

When it was evening and dark enough that the candles weren’t cutting it, Walt went out to the porch and gathered the piles of chopped wood they kept as decoration and brought them to the fireplace in the living room. It took several trips, but he figured it was better to do it all at once. Just in case it lasts until tomorrow, he figured. He still knew how to light the fire using rolled-up newspapers. The tendons in the back of his hands ached badly, but he was able to open the flue and strike the match and the flame danced to the paper and bloomed, spreading in fractal patterns like the lichens on rocks, a forest fire in miniature that consumes the printed word and leaves only blackened shell. 

Because he had tilted each tightly rolled newspaper against the metal grate in the fireplace, air currents formed inside them. The lower ends sucked air rapidly while tongues of fire shot from the other. The tubes roared like jet engines, jets of flame reflecting in Walt’s sooty bifocals. The children. His children before the fireplace, asking him to make another jet engine. Another jet engine. Let’s save this one for Daddy to read in the morning, please. The roaring laughter. The roaring tubes of paper. 

Walt added the cardboard, then the kindling, then the smallest of the chopped wood which doesn’t want to catch at first but then it does. Millie took the leftover pork chops from the fridge and set them in a small cast iron by the fire to warm up a bit. She told Walt they should probably keep the fridge door open as little as possible. He raised a piece of meat to his lips and chewed on it thinking and then, after a long time, said, “That’s a good idea. Maybe we should fill up the sinks and the bathtub, too. Because of the pipes.”

 

VI.

 

Walt realized when it became confidently nighttime that he hadn’t charged the damned cellular, which he hardly used and didn’t even want in the first place. He sat on the rug in front of the fire and steepled his fingers over his beard and rubbed them through the coarse white hair and stared into the glowing undulations of the embers. He rubbed the length of his nose with his index finger by keeping the finger stationary and nodding his head up and down. Millie eased herself down onto the rug beside him, and wrapped both arms around his neck in a loose oval, and closed her eyes against his shoulder. What is the word for knowing someone beyond knowing? You know what he’s thinking and want to ask anyway just to hear him say it, the wonderful voice which is the voice that reads in your head.

The snow was falling just as heavy and fast, and for the first time they felt the cold begin to skulk in through the gaps around the windows and doors, stalking under the elongate, flickering shadows cast by coffee table and couch and body-against-body. Walt and Millie went to sleep in a pile of quilts by the hearth.

 

VII.

 

The snow had stopped before the sun came up. The sky was overcast. It looked like it would start again at any moment. Walt got the battery-powered shower radio and tuned into the weather report and it didn’t sound good, the word blizzard being thrown around, like that. 

“Dumping,” says The Weatherman. “Cold air meets wetness in the atmosphere. Ice crystals grow on motes of dust. The flakes fly in great spiraling orbits through the clouds, colliding with one another and partially melting and freezing again together, made larger, made heavier until they are pulled down by the most fundamental force. Cold air meets moisture, a fluke, a once-in-a-lifetime meteorological event. It will be dumping snow on us by the kiloton.”

Walt and Millie ate cereal with milk from the fridge, and toasted slices of bread by the fire, and drank orange juice. They put on their sweaters and their housecoats. They spent the day climbing down to the cellar gripping onto the railing like storm-tossed fishermen.

“If one of us falls,” Millie said, convincing herself it was a joke, “that would just be it.”

They gathered cans of beans and soup from the cellar and carried them back up the steps in old plastic shopping bags hanging around their elbows. 

 

VIII.

 

By the evening it had become truly cold inside the inert house. They put on their winter coats and relit the fire. The woodpile was diminishing. Millie went to the kitchen and noticed that just the surface of the water in the sink was frozen: a thin sheet of ice.

“I guess we didn’t have to worry about the fridge,” Walt said.

Whenever he entered the kitchen, he noticed the peeling Formica at the edge of the countertop and remembered how they’d been meaning to get that fixed. They might as well get the counters replaced entirely, thirty years old by now. The Lockards just had their kitchen done, nice metal countertops that looked so easy to clean. A bit too industrial. Restaurant-like. Wooden countertops are nice because you can use them without a cutting board. An invasive feeling entered Walt’s eye and he rubbed at it, and is this a tear? There is certainly a wetness beneath the lid. Why are you moved to tears by countertops? 

Walt and Millie got one of their older pots, one they didn’t mind getting sooty, and filled it with water and ice from the sink. They brought it over to the fire and bickered a bit about the best way to do this and then pushed it in, pushed it next to the flames and against the metal grate, where whitened logs disintegrated and sent ash everywhere. The pot became matte and was enveloped by a black opacity. They waited to see if the water would boil. It did, almost, so Millie put on oven mitts and grabbed the handle of the pot and pulled it sloshing onto the rug, Walt clasping his hands over the top of his head. They used a ladle to scoop the steaming water into mugs and made tea and filled the pot again and put eggs in and repeated the process and this time, it did boil. Millie’s forearms became smooth and felt sunburnt because the hair had been singed off. When Walt and Millie fell asleep bundled together by the fireplace in quilts, comforters, duvets, and towels, it had begun snowing hard again.

 

IX.

 

They awoke and it seemed like it was still nighttime. Downstairs it was pitch dark black, only a weak blue glow seeping in through darkened windows. They checked the Bavarian cuckoo and it said 11:15 AM. They went up to the second floor and saw that it was daytime and that the snow had stopped and that the first floor of the house was completely buried. They looked out over the white expanse, no car, no road, no mailbox, no birdbath, no garbage bins with holes in the lids from the squirrels. It was just gentle white rolling over itself, the tops of trees poking through, an orange sun hanging still in the blue sky making liquid gold shine at the crests of the dunes.

“We’ll have to wait for someone to dig us out,” Walt said.

 

X.

 

The pipes were frozen. The standing water they had collected was frozen. The power was out. The food was eaten or frozen. The firewood was gone.

Millie lit the candles again. Walt struggled to lift a wooden chair over his head, and bashed it against the brick chimney, against the hearthstone, but it wasn’t breaking in any meaningful way. His back and neck became unbearably inflamed, his head could no longer turn to look left or right. The cold had come stealing into the both of them, in through the buttons, zippers, seams, and stitching. 

“I’m aching from the cold,” Millie said.

“Me too, and from everything else.”

They both eased back onto the couch and looked at each other and looked at the bookshelf next to the fireplace. 

They lean against the bookshelf as they rifle through its contents, throwing everything out into a pile on the now ashen rug. They start with the ghostwritten autobiographies and memoirs of former presidents and other notable figures, the trendy nonfiction and self-help. They light the pages of these books, and place them on the cold grate in the fireplace where they are consumed by the flames, the books on the grate flying open violently in the heat-wind, fluttering in ways that are almost pleading. Next, they burn the dictionaries and the encyclopedias, the Old Farmer’s Almanacs that Millie gives to Walt each Father’s Day. Millie goes to an upstairs window and manages to scoop some snow into the scorched pot and places it in the fireplace as before and in this way, they are able to get hot water for tea. Then they start with the novels. In the light of the burning pages and the dying candles they read to each other from Dubliners and Crime and Punishment. They read from Leaves of Grass and from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams and from Pride and Prejudice and from Paradise Lost. And they read from Shakespeare and the Bible. The books catch immediately, wonderful orange geometries spread across their surfaces and turn the pages as black as the words printed upon them. It becomes almost fun. They smile at what they read and cry. They laugh at the voices one another puts on for certain characters and bicker about where they had obtained each book. “From the used bookshop on West Chester Pike, what was it called again?” “From Borders, before they closed.” “From my father’s place.”

The caustic smell of burnt glue, the snapping and sputtering, the hissing warmth of it all. One book left unburnt. A photo album they had given up on filling long ago. They sit together on the floor in front of the pyre and flip through it. Look, see the photographs of their wedding night and honeymoon, read the captions. Millie holds their eldest at the hospital, her face painted with such vivid exhaustion even in the fading polaroid, but still beaming. Her face, the square angle of her jaw, the bluish curls, the fullness of brows above eyes that tremble under boundless joy and awesome worry, that gorgeous and terrible emotion. The periwinkle gown, the IVs and gauze, the child. The child. Oh, the beautiful child. More ultrasounds, births, the children through the ages, birthday parties, field trips. Our children. Our wonderful beloveds looking like babes and then looking so grown. Then the kids’ weddings, the grandchildren, new ultrasounds and deliveries. Then it all ends in unfilled pages with glossy sleeves. Places for what may come. “Dumping.” The Weatherman would describe their tears as dumping. They could not burn this. 

“You know, seventy-nine and eighty-three years is pretty good.”

“Sixty together is even better.”

Millie and Walt covered themselves in the blankets and sheets and towels and duvets and quilts and comforters and got as close to the fire as they could without catching. They held the album open in front of them and watched through the night as the candles flickered out one by one and the fire shrank and crackled and became nothing and they were left in total, complete blackness. Then the cold crawled in under the covers with them.

The clock said 5:27 PM.

 

XI.

 

After five days the neighbor from down the road managed to trudge over to the Caldwells’ house. He stamped his boots into a snowbank and climbed, the snow falling away behind him and sinking into his socks. He reached a second-floor window and crawled into the bedroom, which was empty and still, and he shouted their names loudly and heard no reply.

He is ashamed because he suddenly feels like Howard Carter. 

He calls their names again and comes downstairs and sees the pile of fabric by the fireplace and knows right away from the smell of it. They are huddled by the mountains of white ash mixed with scraps of charred paper, and have the pristine album laid out in front of them, just as it all had been. It is opened to an empty page where, in perfect shaking cursive, one of them has written:

We were never scared. You should have seen the fresh fallen snow in the morning.


Billy Irving is a writer from Delaware County, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in The Penn Review.

Art by Bri Chapman

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