Jan considered winter as she drove through it, and found it to have very few redeeming qualities. It made you cold, damp, or both. It made travel slow and treacherous. It kept anyone with regular work hours from seeing natural light, the journey to and from the job taking place while the sun was no more than a hint of paleness on the appropriate horizon. It was, in most respects, an unwelcome visitor.
It could be, she admitted, pretty. Briefly. Intermittently. Yesterday morning had seen the trees thick with hoar-frost, and the drive to work through that spectacle was only a little short of living in the proverbial Winter Wonderland. It would have been absolutely glorious with a newly-risen dawn shining on it; even in the blue non-darkness that passed for night in winter, it was the sort of sight to mitigate winter’s worse aspects. But it had been gone by day’s end, the crystals carried away by a biting wind.
This morning, too, had been pleasing visually, a fresh snowfall putting an ankle’s depth of white over the whole of the city, softening angles and concealing flaws. It had also made driving a misery, and the return home was through brownish muck. That muck gave way to ice at the corners, where thoughtless people responded to slipperiness by flooring the accelerator, polishing the hard ice to a smooth gloss. When home appeared before her at last, Jan was exhausted, almost as if she had been carrying the car for a half-hour instead of driving it.
Snow still lay on the driveway and front walk. Mari was supposed to see to that sort of thing, her flexible freelancer’s hours giving her the liberty to work from home, and thus the responsibility of the live-in caretaker. Jan sighed as she waited for the garage door to run up on its track. She blamed winter more than she did Mari, but an ember of resentment flared within her.
Jan left the garage through the side door; it put her on the right side of the back fence to go to the nearer back door, and after a drive like she had just endured, she did not want to walk all the way along the side of the house then half-way across the front, all on unshoveled walks, to get to the front entry. The mere thought of it reduced her will to live.
The path from the garage to the back door was also unshoveled, but the snow on it had been trampled. Jan recognized the tread of the big winter boots Mari used, toes pointing in the direction of the house and running over another set that marched the opposite way. Jan started to look back, to see if the outbound prints went all the way to the garbage bins or if they stopped at the garage, when her idle curiosity caught on something more interesting.
There was a snowman in the middle of the yard. It was large for its breed, almost as tall as she was. The features of the grinning face around the carrot nose were made of pine-cones, the easy substitute for coal in this age of natural gas furnaces. The scarf and hat were a good deal closer to the traditional ideal, particularly the hat, the sort of slightly battered top hat which outside this context was only seen in cartoons about failing magicians. The snowman’s twig-arms seemed to have been inspired by stage magic, too, wide-spread, spindly fingers splayed; the frozen gesture suggested that the words Tah-dah! should hang in the air above the figure.
She smiled, then made her crunching, squeaking way to the door in Mari’s footprints.
When she entered the house, Mari looked at her from the stove and said, “Sorry I didn’t shovel.”
“‘S all right.” Jan unzipped her jacket, as the humid air, redolent of spices, fogged her glasses. She sat on the short flight of steps which led from door to kitchen to get her boots off.
“Just after you left, a client called for an emergency re-write. By the time I got that done, I just had time to take out the garbage and start on supper.”
“Sure.” Boots off, glasses clearing, she made her way up the stairs. “What’s supper?”
“Chana dal paneer. I made the cheese myself.”
Jan sketched a small bow. “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” She went through to the front closet to hang her jacket, saying as she went, “When did you have time to make the snowman?”
There was a brief silence from the kitchen, followed by, “Pardon?”
“I mean, it’s a good snowman,” Jan said, returning to the kitchen, “but that must have eaten up a lot of day.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Mari had the lid off the big pot, letting fresh gusts of scent and steam out. She had her head cocked to one side, and the serving spoon in her hand canted to the other side, as if for balance.
“The snowman in the back yard.” The look of incomprehension Jan saw on Mari’s face seemed to deepen. “It’s right out there, look,” Jan said, pointing at the kitchen window.
They both looked at the window. It was nearly pebbled with condensation, a square of deep indigo in the butter-yellow of the kitchen wall. Mari looked back at Jan, as if waiting for a punchline.
“You didn’t make it?” This came out in the form of a question, but it was really a statement. Mari had an excellent sense of humour, but it didn’t run in that direction, a path too close to the sort of gaslighting both had experienced in the pre-them era. “I guess some kids…”
The serving spoon now punctuated crossed arms. “I just took the garbage out, Jan. I would have seen a snowman.”
Jan walked to the window, swiping a hand across it to shove some of the dampness away. She cupped the hand by her face, but the dimness of the light in the yard and the brightness of the kitchen made the backyard mysterious, a general blue paleness under a dark sky, all overlaid by her own reflection. She turned away, and saw Mari’s expression softening in response to her own honest confusion.
“Hang on,” she said, moving to the back steps once again. Mari followed her, stopping half-way down the short flight while she gained the landing. She switched on the outside light, turning the inky blueness of the yard beyond pale, then threw open the doors, removing the tiny pane of the inner and the frost-coated glass of the outer from the line of sight.
Out in the middle of the yard, beyond the strength of the light, the snowman stood, regarding them with idiot good humour, the showman’s pose of the arms just visible against the more distant white fence.
“Huh,” Mari said, coming down a step. “That’s a snowman, all right.”
“Yeah,” said Jan, closing the door after a few seconds, her feet already cold enough from standing in the slush she had tracked in.
“I wonder who made it?”
“Good question.” They retreated up to the kitchen again, Jan peeling off her damp socks at the top of the stairs. “Neighbourhood kids, I suppose.”
“I guess,” Mari said, depositing the big spoon in the pot. Jan saw the sudden tension in her back, and looked away, as if not noticing would somehow relieve Mari of the concern. The absence of a child in their life was the one source of serious friction between them, although neither was against the possibility; the constraint lay in the details, whether to adopt or not, who would carry, how a child might disrupt either or both careers. The topic had not come up in months, and Jan was willing to leave it lie for the moment if Mari didn’t give chase.
She did not. “Weird that I didn’t hear them,” she said after a brief silence.
“What, in your work room in the basement with no windows… and probably playing your music?”
“Ho ho. Seriously, though– that thing was not out there when I took out the trash.” Mari put on a broadly comedic expression. “I’m not that oblivious.”
They ate, their speculations about ninja fourth-graders eventually giving way to more usual lines of conversation. Neither quite forgot the subject, though, each of them glancing at the obscurity of the window whenever they happened to go into the kitchen.
The next morning, with dawn still an hour or more distant, they moved about the kitchen in their usual routine, each getting their own preferred breakfast, trying to stay out of the other’s way as best they could except when getting in the way seemed like it would be mutual fun. The tension of the previous night had faded, ravelled sleaves were restored to smoothness.
“What plans for the mighty artist today?” Jan asked, between spoonfuls of oatmeal.
“Laundry.” This brought a small, porridge-muffled cheer. “Once the sun’s up, I’ll get the walks cleared off.”
“That’s what the forecast says.” Mari dropped a final unappealing corner of toast on her plate. “Maybe I’ll roll up a friend for Frosty after lunch.” She stood and walked to the window. The fogging had cleared, the humidity of breakfast having been far less the the previous meal’s, and she could see the slowly lightening yard well enough.
“Aw, somebody knocked down Fr…”
The sudden stop made Jan turn to look at Mari. Mari’s head was canted over, almost to her shoulder, and she was leaning forward, intent, her nose almost touching the glass. “What’s wrong,” she asked, standing up.
“No way. Come and look.” There was wonder in Mari’s voice. The skin on her bare arms had gone matte with gooseflesh. She moved a little to one side so Jan could easily see out the window.
“No snowman,” she said, the fact plain enough.
“No.” Mari said, the wonder edging toward awe. “But look.”
Jan looked. At first, she did not see anything amiss. Then she almost felt the realization migrating from Mari, and as little as there was to see, the same awe she had heard in Mari kindled in her.
There was no snowman, to be sure, but snowmen are ephemeral by nature. There was no sign of the hat, the scarf, the twig-arms, nor any of the pinecones. Apart from the clear tracks she had made coming from the garage last night, and the single line of tracks Mari had left on the way to the garbage cans, there was no break whatever in the snow which lay in the back yard. It lay deep, crisp and even, just as if it had fallen last night rather than the previous.
Jan cast her mind back to her first encounter with the snowman. Then, its presence had been oddity enough. Now, with it gone, she understood that presence had kept from from noticing what was absent. No little boot marks, no plowed-up depressions with the tips of grass peeking out where the material for the balls had been rolled away, no disturbance whatever in the smooth white cover.
Jan turned a little, reaching around Mari to draw her into an embrace. Mari did the same to her, perhaps even initiating the movement. The awe had developed in each of them, not swelling even further into terror, but taking on unheralded colour and texture. Each began to shake, and each pulled away just enough to see the face of the other. There were tears, but no weeping, and without speaking they knew the other felt the same. They laughed together in understanding, giddy as schoolgirls, hugging until the sun rose, a little earlier than it had the day before.
“Snowman” ©2017 Dirck de Lint.