Schnegurochka

by Sam Grieve

I was married to my husband for twenty-three years, seven months, nine days, and fifteen hours. He died at three o’clock on a February afternoon. A Tuesday. I have always liked Tuesdays.

*

My only son, Innes, came to fetch me when he died. I called him from my cell phone to tell him. I went downstairs to make the call; the hospital has a shop down there, and several vending machines, and I stood beside the snack machine as I dialed. When I had finished imparting the news, I found some quarters in my handbag and bought myself a chocolate bar. I was still eating it when Innes pulled up in his dirty car. I came straight out of the revolving doors into the cold air when I saw him, and the wind caught the wrapper of the bar and sent it spiraling over the piled-up snow.

*

My husband’s name was Jacob. I was so young when I met him, barely out of my teens. I remember him kissing me, then sliding his hand down the front of my blouse to cup the budding mound of my breast. I remember how hot his hand felt. He said, you are so beautiful, so white, so cold. His touch sent shivers scuttling along the lines of my ribs.

*

The radio was playing inside the car, but Innes turned if off as I climbed in. The car smelled of coffee, and rubber and leather and the cheap deodorant Innes uses. I leaned my head against the glass. The sun had come out now, between a break in the clouds. I creased up my eyes against the glare. It had snowed again in the night, I saw, but I had been unaware of it in that room. When was I last out in the fresh air? It felt like days, weeks. Beside me, Innes sat silent, his sunglasses on, his hands hardly moving on the wheel. I wanted to ask him how he felt, but I could not. I could not move a single part of myself. Not my toes, or my arms, or even my tongue, which felt like a heavy coin in my mouth. A florin, a doubloon. A guilder.

*

Thinking of money made me think of Jacob in the morgue in the hospital, lying in a dark drawer. Was I supposed to put coins on his eyes? Up on the mountain I could see skiers, the out-of-staters who come up for the weekend. They moved down the flat white surfaces like ants, zigzagging backward and forward. The top of the mountain was as white as the Christmas cakes my mother used to make, with royal icing, smoothed to a gleaming sheen.

*

Mine was an unhappy marriage. It was not unusual in this. Most marriages are probably unhappy at some point or another, but mine was unhappy from the beginning. Jacob stood on my train leaving the church. A little thing, a rip of satin, no longer than my palm, but that was the start; it all began unraveling from there. Everything he did irked me. We were unsuited for each other. Where he ran hot, I ran cold. He was noise; me, silence.

*

He was also clumsy. No, let me be more precise, he was clumsy in my world. Outside in the woods, with his taps and pipes and his sugar house, he was as balanced as a man can be. It was inside that he struggled. He would knock over tables and lamps. He would accidentally swipe pictures off the wall with his coat, or spill the soup as he carried the tureen. He broke plates and glasses and even, once, the blade of the cheese knife. He broke our bed. We did not sleep in it together for long. Just enough time for the children to be conceived and born, and then I moved out, to the attic room, up a narrow flight of stairs. He could not fit up there, not comfortably, with his height.

*

And yet, despite all this oafishness, he could move his fingers like water over his guitar strings. At the beginning, I liked his playing. You could say it was what lured me to him, those strumming chords. He called me out of the woods like a bird. I would sit on a stump and watch him, his long hair falling in his face, his wild beard. It was only later that I realized what he had done, how he had trapped me. His playing made us rich. His fame grew. People from all over the state came to hear him. But he did not care about the money, or shiny things. He gave it all to me, and I built a gilded cage around myself.

*

How I detested him. I would watch him leave in the mornings, driving his battered red truck down the path, and feel the house exhale around me, as though all the foul air of the night was following him down the drive. But I did not tell anyone this. Apart from our separate bedrooms, you would never have realized anything was wrong. I had been raised by my mother, you see, to be a good wife. I was to keep house. I was to keep his clothes clean and his socks darned and his hair trimmed. I was to feed his body, that relentless hungry body that could devour a whole chicken, or a cake, a loaf of bread. I baked and stewed and roasted and steamed and yet he was always hungry, the larder bare. I ate barely a thing myself. A half a piece of bread with a smear of jelly so light you could scrape it all up onto your thumbnail. An egg here or there. A handful of blueberries off the bush in summer. A sliver of cheese.

*

The doctor said, you will never have children if you remain so thin. Your menses will stop. You will become a half-thing, a ghost, a neither-nor. But how could I eat with him in the house, stomping his feet and roaring like an ogre from a fairy tale? And that incessant music. About me. Always about me. He stripped me naked; he paraded me.

The doctor was wrong anyway. I gave birth to three children, Innes, Lorelei, and a baby girl born so early she could not take a breath. Nowadays they might have saved her, put her in a glass box and breathed oxygen right into the gasping cells of her tiny body. I think about her sometimes, that little girl. Her brief life, counted in seconds. I imagine she has stayed with me, her little soul, bound to mine like a balloon tethered behind me. She was too young to go into the dark alone, so I will take her with me when the time is right.

*

Innes and Lorelei were ordinary children. I found this surprising. They watched television and ate hamburgers and caught the yellow bus to school and squabbled and read comic books. Innes wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, Lorelei a nurse. Neither has lived up to their dreams. Innes lives in Rutland and sells real estate, and Lorelei works at a ski rental shop. She polishes and waxes the visitors’ skis until they shine, until they are as sharp as two blades. Sometimes she comes home with blood on her thumbs. It does not matter. She was born with ugly hands.

*

Innes turned to me, do you want to go straight home?

I had not thought about it before, but now I realized the house was the last place I wanted to be. No, I said, take me to town.

Innes shrugged and turned left at the junction on 104. The snow was deep in the drifts, piled up, and covered with animal prints, the long foot of the hare, little raccoon hands. The snow lay deep on the firs and the pines, and along the branches of the hickory, the maple, as though someone had balanced it there. The snow was cold and bright and beautiful.

*

The town was busy, for all the out-of-towners were here for the weekend. They drove their big cars and talked in loud voices and stamped up and down on the icy sidewalks. Innes parked the car behind the hardware store. He said, do you mind if I wait here? I told him that was quite fine by me and left him there in his Honda Civic. I walked the length of Main Street, from the medical center to the post office. I did not go around the bend to where the Irish pub lay. My husband had played there from time to time; I had no wish to meet his friends. On the way back, I bought myself some presents. A pair of mittens knitted in multicolor. A bottle of wine from Argentina. And a bird in a cage. It was not a real bird, of course, merely carved from wood, but it delighted me, and I thought, perhaps it can fill the place my husband has left.

*

Innes looked at my things and frowned. My children have never understood me—I am an enigma to them.

He said, are you going to drink all that wine yourself?

I might, I told him.

At home he pulled up outside the front door. Shall I come in?

No, I said.

*

That night I went around the house. I built a big fire in the firepit outside. I began to burn his things. I started small, with his magazines, issues of Rolling Stone exploding in colored flames. Then I began on his clothes, his underpants, his woolen socks. I burned his notebooks. I burned his manuscripts. I burned his ballads, his poems. I burned his posters and his concert programs and his fan mail. I threw it all in the fire. I drank a glass of Malbec. Then another. I smashed his guitar on the newel post. I tore the strings from it as though I was tearing the arteries from his heart. And finally, I burnt his platinum album. Snegurochka. I smashed it on a rock, cremated the pieces in the blaze.

*

I could not burn his songs from my head, so I washed them away instead. I put on my woolen mittens. I was not cold, of course; I just liked them. Above, the sky was as bottomless as a well, the stars floating in dark water. I thought of my husband in that cold drawer. When all was burnt, I went back into the house. I packed my red leather suitcase. I put in my snow boots and my fur coat and my diamond necklace and my ice-cold heart. I clipped the suitcase shut. I tightened the straps. I picked it up, and I picked up my silent bird, and I went into the forest. I did not bother saying goodbye to my children. And I left no footprints—for when does the falling snow ever leave the slightest mark?

 

Sam Grieve was born in Cape Town, and lived in Paris and London prior to settling down in Connecticut. She graduated from Brown University, and has worked as a librarian, a bookseller and an antiquarian book-dealer. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in numerous magazines including PANK, The Delmarva Review and Southern Indiana Review. She can be found online at Samgrieveauthor.com.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction

2 responses to “Schnegurochka

  1. This is a beautiful piece of writing. Felt the protagonist’s pain and her eagerness to release herself from the prison she had inhabited.

  2. Such a unique piece. Never read anything like this. Full of honesty and surprises. Beautiful!

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