Silent Snow, Secret Snow!

  • 04 Jul - 10 Jul, 2020
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

These thoughts came and went, came and went, as softly and secretly as the snow; they were not precisely a disturbance, perhaps they were even a pleasure; he liked to have them; their presence was something almost palpable, something he could stroke with his hand, without closing his eyes, and without ceasing to see Miss Buell and the school-room and the globe and the freckles on Deirdre’s neck; nevertheless he did in a sense cease to see, or to see the obvious external world, and substituted for this vision the vision of snow, the sound of snow, and the slow, almost soundless, approach of the postman. Yesterday, it had been only at the sixth house that the postman had become audible; the snow was much deeper now, it was falling more swiftly and heavily, the sound of its seething was more distinct, more soothing. And with each such narrowing of the sphere, each nearer approach of the limit at which the postman was first audible, it was odd how sharply was increased the amount of illusion which had to be carried into the ordinary business of daily life. Each day, it was harder to get out of bed, to go to the window, to look out at the as always perfectly empty and snowless street. Each day it was more difficult to go through the perfunctory motions of greeting Mother and Father at breakfast, to reply to their questions, to put his books together and go to school. There were times when he longed positively but was it absurd? Yes: it must be kept secret. That, more and more, became clear.

(Miss Buell looked straight at him, smiling, and said, “Perhaps we’ll ask Paul. I’m sure Paul will come out of his day-dream long enough to be able to tell us. Won’t you, Paul.” He rose slowly from his chair, resting one hand on the brightly varnished desk, and deliberately stared through the snow towards the blackboard. It was an effort, but it was amusing to make it. “Yes,” he said slowly, “it was what we now call the Hudson River. This he thought to be the Northwest Passage. He was disappointed.” He sat down again, and as he did so Deirdre half turned in her chair and gave him a shy smile, of approval and admiration.)

This part of it was very puzzling, very puzzling. Mother was very nice, and so was Father. Yes, that was all true enough. He wanted to be nice to them, to tell them everything and yet, was it really wrong of him to want to have a secret place of his own?

At bedtime, the night before, Mother had said, “If this goes on, my lad, we’ll have to see a doctor, we will! We can’t have our boy,” But what was it she had said? “Live in another world”? “Live so far away”? The word “far” had been in it, he was sure, and then Mother had taken up a magazine again and laughed a little, but with an expression which wasn’t mirthful, He had felt sorry for her. . . .

The bell rang for dismissal. The sound came to him through long curved parallels of falling snow. He saw Deirdre rise, and had himself risen almost as soon but not quite as soon as she.

On the walk homeward, which was timeless, it pleased him to see through the accompaniment, or counterpoint, of snow, the items of mere externality on his way. There were many kinds of brick in the sidewalks, and laid in many kinds of pattern. The garden walls too were various, some of wooden palings, some of plaster, some of stone. Twigs of bushes leaned over the walls: the little hard green winter-buds of lilac, on grey stems, sheathed and fat; other branches very thin and fine and black and dessicated. Dirty sparrows huddled in the bushes, as dull in colour as dead fruit left in leafless trees. A single starling creaked on a weather vane. In the gutter, beside a drain, was a scrap of torn and dirty newspaper, caught in a little delta of filth: the word ECZEMA appeared in large capitals, and below it was a letter from Mrs Amelia Cravath, 2100 Pine Street, Fort Worth, Texas, to the effect that after being a sufferer for years she had been cured by Caley’s Ointment. In the little delta, beside the fan-shaped and deeply runnelled continent of brown mud, were lost twigs, descended from their parent trees, dead matches, a rusty horse-chestnut burr, a small concentration of sparkling gravel on the lip of the sewer, a fragment of egg-shell, a streak of yellow sawdust which had been wet and now was dry and congealed, a brown pebble, and a broken feather. Further on was a cement sidewalk, ruled into geometrical parallelograms, with a brass inlay at one end commemorating the contractors who had laid it, and, halfway across, an irregular and immortalised in synthetic stone. He knew these well, and always stepped on them; to cover the little hollows with his own foot had always been a queer pleasure; today he did it once more, but perfunctorily and detachedly, all the while thinking of something else.

Then, the gateway with the two posts surmounted by egg-shaped stones which had been cunningly balanced on their ends, as if by Columbus, and mortared in the very act of balance: a source of perpetual wonder. On the brick wall just beyond, the letter H had been stenciled, presumably for some purpose.

The green hydrant, with a little green-painted chain attached to the brass screw-cap. The injury, he had been sure, was due to the gnawings of a tethered horse. But now it deserved only a passing palm, a merely tolerant eye. There were more important things. Miracles. Beyond the thoughts of sidewalks, mere stone, mere brick, mere cement. He watched them. They were not very well polished; he had neglected them, for a very good reason: they were one of the many parts of the increasing difficulty of the daily return to daily life, the morning struggle. To get up, having at last opened one’s eyes, to go to the window, and discover no snow, to wash, to dress, to descend the curving stairs to breakfast.

At whatever pain to others, nevertheless, one must persevere in severance, since the incommunicability of the experience demanded it. It was desirable of course to be kind to Mother and Father, especially as they seemed to be worried, but it was also desirable to be resolute. If they should decide as appeared likely to consult the doctor, Doctor Howells, and have Paul inspected, his heart listened to through a kind of dictaphone, his lungs, well, that was all right. He would go through with it. He would give them answer for question, perhaps such answers as they hadn’t expected? No. That would never do. For the secret world must, at all costs, be preserved.

The bird-house in the apple-tree was empty; it was the wrong time of year for wrens. The little round black door had lost its pleasure. The wrens were enjoying other houses, other nests, remoter trees. But this too was a notion which he only vaguely and grazingly entertained as if, for the moment, he merely touched an edge of it; there was something further on, which was already assuming a sharper importance; something which already teased at the corners of his eyes, teasing also at the corner of his mind. It was funny to think that he so wanted this, so awaited it and yet found himself enjoying this momentary dalliance with the bird-house, as if for a quite deliberate postponement and enhancement of the approaching pleasure. He was aware of his delay, of his smiling and detached and now almost uncomprehending gaze at the little bird-house; he knew what he was going to look at next: it was his own little cobbled hill-street, his own house, the little river at the bottom of the hill, the grocer’s shop with the cardboard man in the window and now, thinking of all this, he turned his head, still smiling, and looking quickly right and left through the snow-laden sunlight.

And the mist of snow, as he had foreseen, was still on it, a ghost of snow falling in the bright sunlight, softly and steadily floating and turning and pausing, soundlessly meeting the snow that covered, as with a transparent mirage, the bare bright cobbles. He loved it, he stood still. Its beauty was paralysing, beyond all words, all experience, all dream. No fairy-story he had ever read could be compared with it, none had ever given him this extraordinary combination of ethereal loveliness with a something else, unnameable, which was just faintly and deliciously terrifying. What was this thing? As he thought of it, he looked upward toward his own bedroom window, which was open and it was as if he looked straight into the room and saw himself lying half awake in his bed. There he was at this very instant he was still perhaps actually standing here at the edge of the cobbled hill-street, with one hand lifted to shade his eyes against the snow-sun. Had he indeed ever left his room, in all this time? Was the whole progress still being enacted there, was it still the same morning?

This idea amused him, and automatically, as he thought of it, he turned his head and looked toward the top of the hill. There was, of course, nothing there, nothing and no one. The street was empty and quiet. And all the more because of its emptiness it occurred to him to count the houses, a thing which, oddly enough, he hadn’t before thought of doing. Of course, he had known there weren’t many, that is, on his own side of the street, which were the ones that figured in the postman’s progress but nevertheless it came to him as something of a shock to find that there were precisely six, above his own house which was the seventh. Six!

Astonished, he looked at his own house looked at the door, on which was the number thirteen and then realised that the whole thing was exactly and logically and absurdly what he ought to have known. Just the same, the realisation gave him abruptly, and even a little frighteningly, a sense of hurry. He was being hurried. For he knit his brows, he couldn’t be mistaken it was just above the seventh house, his own house, that the postman had first been audible this very morning. But in that case, did it mean that tomorrow he would hear nothing? The knock he had heard must have been the knock of their door. Did it mean and this was an idea which gave him a really extraordinary feeling of surprise, that he would never hear the postman again? That tomorrow morning the postman would already have passed the house, in a snow by then so deep as to render his footsteps completely inaudible? That he would have made his approach down the snow-filled street so soundlessly, so secretly, that he, Paul Hasleman, there lying in bed. A vague feeling of disappointment came over him; a vague sadness, as if he felt himself deprived of something which he had long looked forward to, something much prized. After all this, all this beautiful progress, the slow delicious advance of the postman through the silent and secret snow, the knock creeping closer each day, and the footsteps nearer, the audible compass of the world thus daily narrowed, narrowed, narrowed, as the snow soothingly and beautifully encroached and deepened, after all this, was he to be defrauded of the one thing he had so wanted, to be able to count, as it were, the last two or three solemn footsteps, as they finally approached his own door? Was it all going to happen,

at the end, so suddenly?

Or indeed, had it already happened?

He gazed upward again, toward his own window which flashed in the sun: and this time almost with a feeling that it would be better if he were still in bed, in that room; for in that case this must still be the first morning, and there would be six more mornings to come or, for that matter, seven or eight or nine, how could he be sure? Or even more.

to be continued...