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Snow Country

by Aaron Paulson


On the first morning a skiff of ice appeared on the roadside puddles, the neighbors were under their cars, wrapping chains around the tires.

"Something is afoot," Sailor observed, as they strolled the grounds of Pagoda Park.

"Looks like we're in for an early winter."

"Really?" said Sailor, stopping for a moment to re-light his pipe, his wedding present from Eve. "I didn't know they got winter here."

"Good morning!" said Eve, as they passed their neighbors.

"Do you think they understand?" said Sailor.

"That's what we're here for," said Eve.



Winter came off the Western Sea in great waves that broke against the treed, broken-tipped mountains along the coast. Winter rode down the interior from the barren northland, an invading army that buried fields and killed crops and harried livestock, and took warmth from home and body by force. Each farm became an island unto itself. Each little cabin in town was its own castle, resisting the siege of winter as best it could, alone.

"At least the spiders have gone away," said Sailor, thinking of the black articulated monsters that lived in his office.



"The Director says we must board up the windows before the snow gets too high," said Eve, coming home from school. "I made angels with my students today."

That weekend, Sailor and Eve pulled rotting boards from the webbed grasp of the weed patch behind their cabin. They hammered slats onto frames, and braced the wood against the south wall, the side with all the windows. Inside, they covered the glass in plastic sheeting.

"Our house is so dark now, like a tomb or a cave," said Sailor.

"Or a womb," said Eve.

That night, they made love without drawing the curtains.

"And all the world's a stage." said Eve.

"I read that somewhere," says Sailor.

"The house lights dimmed."



Every morning Sailor and Eve woke with the sun and ate a hot breakfast together. Oatmeal. Tofu steaks fried in onion and soy sauce. Spiced potato medallions. Then Sailor pulled a waterproof shell over his pajamas, a hat over his pillow of hair, and staggered into the morning. And, every morning, hidden in the deep blue sky, a sulfuric stench from the pulp-and-paper mill blew across town. Sailor shoveled out the car so that Eve could drive to school.

Every evening, more snow washed up against the broken-tipped mountains. More snow charged down from the north. Plows cleared the streets at night, warning sirens echoing through the sleeping town. By morning a fresh plug of snow filled the driveway again.

After shoveling out the driveway, Sailor would drive the car around the little teacher's ghetto of identical cabins near the school. Bundled children appeared like clockwork in the cleared streets, or tumbled and fell from the growing snow banks along the curb. Later in the morning, Eve would teach these same children the sounds and words, and sometimes the feel or smell, of her home half a world away. For now, Sailor tried desperately not to bump any of the children cocooned in parkas and snow pants as they made their dogged way to class.



Eve off to school, Sailor did laundry and vacuumed the threadbare rug. He watched local broadcasts of international news, trying to catch familiar words and phrases. Globalization. Corporate State. Diaspora.

"Hell in a hand basket," he would say to himself, at the end of most broadcasts.

He drank too much coffee.



During the summer, when the mountains were covered in bamboo grass and the outlying rice paddies were still dry, Sailor set up an office in the spare room of their cabin. The spare room had been built in traditional style, with reed mats on the floor, and walls finished in coarse-grained paper. In the otherwise bare room, he sat cross-legged on the mat floor - "It's good for my posture" - and flipped through magazines from home, reading job retraining advertisements.

"How about Information Technology?" he asked Eve one day.

"How about Cardiology?" he asked her another.

Sailor stayed in the office until the rainy season drove hordes of armored insects into the room, and mold spores attacked his sinuses.

"Yuck. Bugs," he said to Eve over dinner.

"Never mind," said Eve. "You can move back in later."

They sealed off the spare room with duct tape. Sometimes Sailor thought he heard movement through the flimsy sliding door.



With autumn in full decay and the outlying rice paddies green and black, Sailor paced out the days between the other two rooms of their cabin.

"We need to get some plants or something," he said one night, as they lay in bed. "Plants help purify the air."

"Too much commitment," said Eve, rolling comfortably in his arms.

"But they would brighten the place up. Plus, I could talk to them while you were away at work."

"Stop it. You're breaking my heart."



Pace pace pace. Sailor moved from living room to bedroom. Stopped to consider. Pace pace pace. From bedroom to living room again.



Winter crawled out of the furred countryside a waking beast and raked the walls of their little cabin. Eve taught at school until the start of winter vacation. Then she spent her days at home, with Sailor. They sealed off the drafty bedroom with towels and plastic sheeting, and settled into blankets on the couch by the patio door, making love and reading out loud to each other from their favorite novels. At night they slept on a futon, feet stretched to the furnace's open flame.

"Doesn't this beat talking to plants?" said Eve.

They went on like this for some time.



"Wouldn't like to be under that," said Sailor.

Another mini avalanche slid off the roof, jarring the cabin as snow and ice tumbled against the walls. Eve was watching a video of Saturday morning cartoons sent from home.

"What would you like to be under?" she said, pausing the video.

"That was fun," said Sailor, after. "What shall we do now?"

"I could lie here like this forever," said Eve, pressing herself into Sailor.

"That may be arranged, if this snow keeps up."



"Can't you get these sheets any whiter?"

"How much did you say your life insurance policy was worth?"

"I just want to be me," said Eve, getting up to fix another cup of tea.



"We need a hobby or something," said Sailor, wishing he'd never quit smoking. "To pass the time."

"Let's hike in the mountains this spring. The way my students do."

"Spring will never make it here. Besides, fox scat carries parasites that eat into your liver. You have to have it removed."

"The liver, or the parasite?"



"Earthquake? I didn't feel anything," said Sailor.

His mother didn't sound too alarmed, so Sailor sat back and ate another of Eve's chocolate zucchini cupcakes. The proper authorities would contact them if there were ever any real danger. Wouldn't they?

"We must prepare in case of natural disaster, such as flood, fire, typhoon, volcano, or earthquake," said Sailor, when Eve returned home. "It's only sensible to have a plan."

"Earthquake?" said Eve. "I didn't feel anything."

"Is fire a disaster, or just natural?" said Sailor.

"I suppose it depends on which end of the match you're holding," said Eve.

"That's the problem with the world today," said Sailor. "Everything depends."



"They closed the ice rink today."

"But there's still months of winter!"

"Nevertheless, the rink is closed."



Sailor and Eve sat on the couch, touching, as hot air from the furnace breathed through the cabin. Outside, growing banks of snow pushed the wooden barriers against the windows. The space between the top of the snow and the bottom of the roof was rapidly diminishing. Sailor and Eve squinted through icicles that barred their window, at a sun that burned a hole in the blue,blue sky.

"Only a matter of time now," said Eve.

Fluorescent lights hummed over their heads.

"I tried to open the front door this morning," said Sailor. "Something's blocked it shut."

"At least you won't have to shovel again, at least until spring."

"No mail from home," said Sailor.

"No bills," said Eve.

"I'm tired," said Eve, stretching out. "All this doing nothing."

"Was that you?" she asked, some time later.

"Was what me?"

"Something brushed my neck."

"It's so gloomy in here. Like an aquarium."

"I wonder when I start teaching again."

"The proper authorities will let you know when you're needed."



The snow pile at the back of the house continued to grow higher with the relentless snowfall, until only the TV antenna remained clear. Sailor and Eve moved slower and slower between kitchen and living room and bathroom.

They ate less and less. The days faded into a long blue icy tunnel that they watched, impassively, from the couch.

"Are we really going to give up this easily?" Eve managed to say. "Not even try?"

"Be quiet," said Sailor. "The TV is talking."



"They're back," said Sailor, pulling a strand of web from his face. The room was filling with a grim dawn light.

"Did they ever really go away?" said Eve, touching herself in a careful, probing sort of way.

"They live with us. In our closets. In our drains. In with the dust bunnies that devour our brains."

"You're a poet," said Eve.

"Just lucky," said Sailor.

Sailor and Eve sat in the widening dawn.

"I really have to pee," Eve finally said.

"Did you sleep well?"

"What does this mean? It must have meaning. Nothing is without meaning."

"Something is afoot," said Sailor, finding his pipe. "I can feel it."


Aaron Paulson currently divides his time between Tokyo and Hokkaido, Japan. His stories and articles have appeared online and in print in such venues as Salon.com, Travelmag.co.uk, Tokyo Journal, Acta Victoriana, and Crania. "Snow Country" is a part of "Postcards from Hokkaido/Hokkaido Gothic," a work in progress about NorthEast Asia.  Links to these and other essays and stories can be found at Exit Booted at http://www.exitbooted.com.

 

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