Fiction: Snow Men by Matt Forsythe

One must have a mind of winter

—Wallace Stevens

 

Face down, he opens his eyes to a drift.  The snow is warm, compared to the frigid air, and he burrows into its cushion.  His tongue flicks out.  Ice crystals soften and wet his chapped lips. They’ve been skiing for less than ten minutes, but Dan’s heart is already racing, hammering into his ribs.  He slows it with measured breath and dreams about bedding down.

A shout pierces the night, and he rolls from the cradle.  The trail is packed, pounded into the ground, ten inches of powder beat into three.  Stars dot the gray sky.  Their specks have started to fade, outshined by the rising moon.

Skis scrape in his direction, and a dark figure glides to a stop.  “Down already?” it asks.

“Shut up.”  Dan tries to stand but cannot.

His brother towers above him, eclipsing the stars.  “Roll over,” he commands.

Dan lies on his back and lifts both legs.  They stretch toward the heavens, supplicants, trunks in the forest.

“Now unhook your . . .”

“I know, dammit.”  He realigns the skis, rolls sideways, and pushes himself to his feet.  “I’ve done this before, remember?”

“I remember,” says Caleb.  “But do you?”  The young prick turns and moves smoothly along the path.

 

Dan, the elder of the pair, was once the better skier.  On Aunt Lily’s farm, north of their house in Grand Rapids, the brothers passed winters on the frozen pastures.  Despite their toothpick bodies, nothing but skin and bones, they embraced the Michigan chill.  In those days, Dan lasted all day without falling.  Back then, Caleb furrowed the snow with his face.

Caleb skis a lot now, according to Mom.  Most weekends between Thanksgiving and Easter, often more.  During thaws, when the icy trails turn to slush, Caleb comes home depressed and spattered with mud.  She washes his clothes, but the stains won’t lift.

He should wash his own clothes, Dan tells her.  He’s in college now, isn’t he?

Down the road at Community, she says, not like you at State.  But I’ll wash your clothes too, if that’s what you want.

Dan doesn’t want her to wash his clothes.  He wants Caleb to grow up, like he did.

 

Caleb shrinks as he pulls ahead.  When the grate of his skis dies away, Dan gathers his poles and follows.

They move through the night, though not alone.  Unknown skiers cut these paths, and their ancient spirits linger.  The discarded bodies of the Nephilim line the trail, asleep on their giant backs, poles crossed on each frozen torso.  Dan glides across their mausoleum.

 

The moonlight strengthens.  Buck Creek Game Preserve slips past.  The lines of the trees are crisp and dark, and the snow radiates with a luminous glow.  The naked forest is still, deep in winter hibernation.  The brothers generate sound, but the rest of the landscape is silent—silent and cold, sixteen degrees when they left Dan’s truck at eleven.

He’s never skied here before.  Caleb discovered the place on his own.  According to Mom, he talked for months about dragging his brother out.  So here Dan is, wasting his Christmas break, beating the air as Caleb flaunts his gifts.

He liked skiing once, especially at night, especially with his younger sibling.  They used to plot missions together, scouting woods to invade, eager for the next full moon.  His senior year, they hopped the barbed wire on James Klaasen’s land for a midnight run down his ravine.  That old bastard spotted their car and chased down their tracks with a snow machine and a .22.  Dan had seldom felt so alive.

 

Left leg, right leg.  Slide, slide.

Details in the landscape haunt him.  A gnarled stump rises from a drift, the web of roots from an overturned tree.  His path curls just outside their reach.

It’s more tiring than he remembers, and despite his extra pounds—seven semesters of pizza and beer—he’s colder than he used to be.

Buck Creek breaks the silence.  They follow its bank for several minutes and arrive at a wooden bridge.  Halfway across, Dan pauses to lean his waist into the rail and watch the flooded stream.  The current is black, unfrozen due to its motion.  Splashes from eddies mask a deep rush, a powerful surge fed by snowmelt.

Time slows, and so does the creek.  An icy shell creeps across its surface, and the brothers slip into the past, that winter the Grand nearly froze.  On the shore, a man with a rifle steps out of history, gauging the ice, in search of a suitable crossing.

 

Caleb yells something that his brother does not understand.  Earmuffs and a thick wool touk keep out more than the cold.  They ski together in separate worlds.

His reckless guide breaks from the path, weaving among the trees, and cuts down a faint slope.  Branches snatch at Dan’s chest as he follows.

He used to be like his sibling, impulsive and naive.  But the world preys on idealists.  You’ve got to be practical.

Dad’s proud of him, says he’s finally being sensible.  One more semester at State, then law school.

Caleb claims he’s grown soft, that education has tamed his wild spirit.  The naïve hippie still thinks he will hike the AT, climb Denali, save Leviathan—environmental shit.

You can’t win, Dan tells him, not with your slogans on bed sheets.  Bumper stickers don’t change minds.  You’ve got to have people like me on your side—you’ve got to have power.

You’re policy, his brother answers.  You’re policy, but I’m action.

 

Fiberglass rods extend his reach and finger the ice with their metal picks.  Dan dreads these weapons, afraid of a skewered gut.  His eyes are tender and easy to pluck.  They water as he picks up speed.

Blinded, eyes gouged by their poles, the departed hunt their scent.  They tear across the woodlands, racing Dan’s shadow.  Join our ranks, the spirits call.  Surrender to your fate.

 

Dan thrashes the brush, distracted, divided against himself.  He scans for drifts to break his inevitable fall.

His brother’s tracks swerve, dodging a tree.  He can’t make the turn, so he bails, tumbling to one side, and flings the poles far from his eyes.  A moment later, he spits out a mouthful of snow and checks himself for damage.

Two more wrecks, and he finally bursts from the forest.  At the edge of a field, his brother waits.  Dan slows, wobbling but not falling, and draws near a silhouette.

“You’re the loudest thing for miles,” Caleb says.  “How many times did you bite it, coming down that last slope?”

“Twice.”

“Hm.”

“So, is this it?”  Dan’s thighs and shoulders ache, and he struggles not to pant.

“Almost.  Why?  Tired already?”

“No.  Just wondered.”

When they stop, the cold attacks twice as hard.  Layers are his friends, slowing its march toward the skin.  They insulate him from an icy world.  Long underwear.  T-shirts: one long-sleeved, one short.  Two pairs of socks.  Sweat pants (one fleece, one nylon).  Sweatshirt.  Scarf.  Coat.  Gloves.

Caleb mocks this excessive bulk, which traps sweat, chilling the flesh.  He rambles about breathable fabric and wicking moisture.  He lectures on the mind of winter, but he can’t see his steaming head.

 

Beads of breath condense and freeze on Dan’s scarf.  “It’s nice,” he says.

Caleb glances his direction, then back at the field.  He does not speak, though Dan knows what he’s thinking.  The scene is many things—tranquil, unnerving, severe—but nice is not counted among them.  This land is not their father’s garden.  The night doesn’t care if they freeze.

Caleb pushes one foot forward, then the other, and slips back into rhythm.  The clearing is narrow but long.  Stalks of grasses disrupt the crust of snow, which is pocked by animal tracks: the shallow prints of squirrel and chipmunks, the deeper tread of deer, possibly even badger and fox.  The last time out, Caleb spotted a wolverine . . . so he claims.

Tonight the space is motionless.  Only the travelers violate its stillness.  Their fresh lines are clear and sharp, slicing across the field.

Dan advances with caution, careful not to disturb the terrain.  Never awaken a sleeping giant.

 

Midway across the glade, they pass the ruins of a long-abandoned hearth.  A father in overalls blows life into the glowing embers, while a woman in calico watches, working her patchwork apron with anxious hands.  Outside their cabin, a girl and her brother splash in the prairie ocean.

Fifty yards later, they come to a circle of boulders.  The largest stand erect, but others have fallen, buried beneath the snow.  This land has been hunted for centuries.  In the center of the ring, trackers crouch near a violent blaze.  Shadows dance on the rocks behind them, and light from the flames plays across their painted flesh.  They are silent, skins draped on their shoulders, and the crackle of splintering wood is drowned by a roaring wind.

 

The animal tracks have thinned.

The field ends in a long embankment, almost twice their height, level and true—the clear work of men and tools.  A gap splits the obstacle in two, and they enter this divide.  Dan follows his brother’s trail, a blemish on the naked land.

Beyond the defile, at the bottom of a shallow grade, Caleb stops at the edge of a smooth plane of snow.  No animal prints, no rocks or grasses—nothing.  The reflection of the moon is fierce, and the empty landscape heightens its sublime effect.  One cannot gauge the scope of this expanse.  They are perched on the lip of the universe, that razor’s edge between matter and time.

“What is it?” Dan asks.

“A lake.”  Language restores order to the vision.  The snow-covered ice spreads for acres.

He gestures to the broken ridge behind them. “Those?”

“Burial mounds.”

 

Earlier, on the drive to the game preserve, Caleb had philosophized about its dual nature, both hunting ground and haven.  He considered the name itself a mystery: a preserve.  The title promised sanctuary, but its calendar of permits was built around death.

A necessary contradiction, Dan argued.  A practical solution, conserving the game for future generations.  Shelter for most, death for the sacrificial few.

There are no contradictions, his brother answered, only mysteries.

 

The surface of the lake is a frozen canvas, radiant, the purest landscape that Dan has beheld.  At its center, pines cling to a rocky knoll.  The island appears to float, hovering within this otherworldly space.

A jacket hits the ground.  “Wake,” commands Caleb.  He faces his brother, poles in hand and naked from the waist up.  In the light of the moon, his well-defined chest is pale and wan.

“What’s this?”

“Time to head out.  You can take off your coat, if you’d like.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Energy.”  He shrugs.  “Respect.”

“Where are you going?”  Dan points to the island.  “Out there?”

“Sure.”

“Is it safe?”

“Of course not.  That makes it worth doing.  But there’s half a foot of ice beneath the snow, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“There aren’t any tracks.”

“Suit yourself.”  Caleb pushes onto the lake.

“Wait,” Dan says.  “Let’s head back.  It’s cold.”

“Only if you think about it.  Move around a little, so you don’t freeze.”

 

His brother cuts across the virgin powder, dragging his tracks like chains.  Dan kneels and attempts to cover them, but the slate will not clean.

At the island’s shore, the man-child pauses.  Soon, the rest of his clothing forms a small, dark heap near his skis.  He is arrogant, resolved on nothing less than a transfiguration, shedding this human skin when sacking Mother Nature.  A howl echoes into the night.  The ass scrambles past a boulder and disappears.

 

Dan waits at the edge of the ice.  The brilliance of the moonlight sears his retinas.  The terrain is resplendent, everything but those grim, dark cuts that disfigure the lake.

The island calls to him, its whisper soft.  Dan slips his skis into Caleb’s tracks, legs trembling as he tests the ice.

Left leg, right . . .

No.  He backs onto the shore and out of the grooves.  He despises them.  The sacred has been anchored, lashed to this sinful realm by his brother’s path.

He faces the mounds, those sentinels keeping watch.  Their glare is silent and heavy with condemnation.

 

The cold works through his layers.  Below twenty, he tells himself, the temperature’s all the same.  It moves slowly, relentless, numbing the blood, settling deep into the bones.

Dan approaches a mound and removes his skis.  Kneeling at its base, he scoops a trench in the snow and lays his body down, closing his eyes, slowing his breath.  His mortal heart pounds at first, but eventually it calms as well.

Left valve, right valve.  Open, close.

Rifleman, overalls, calico dress.  Their hearts beat with his own.  Warriors in skins, skiers with fiberglass poles: They rest together in the snow.  Night swallows their bodies, the cold feasts on their bitter flesh.

For a moment, Dan feels hope.  Perhaps Caleb never went to the island.  He now sleeps, inches away, within reach of his brother’s hand.  But a second howl disrupts this vision, a barbarous cry of war.

A shadow steps onto the ice, defying the cold, a courier from the island.  It gathers its clothes and starts moving across the lake.

A primordial judge ascends the nearest mound.  Lifting an arm, he points at Dan, the gesture an indictment.

He protests the verdict.  No one forced his brother to defile the sublime.  Caleb is wild, slave to none but himself.  I never touched the lake, Dan argues.  Look at the proof — a single set of tracks.

The ancient one ignores his case.  A trespass is private, but guilt must always be shared.  Two lines cut to the island, a new pair slices back—enough for them both.

No, Dan objects, I am not my brother’s keeper.

 

On the shore, the shadow dons sweatshirt and coat.  “Cold yet?” it asks.

“A bit.”

“You can’t imagine what it’s like out there.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Ready?” Dan asks.

“Ready.  You lead.”

He leads, his back to the island.  The accusation lingers.  Dan passes between the mounds, entering their history, and shudders, afraid that he’s roused the sleepers.  But the tombs are silent. In their frozen stomach, the snowmen rest.

At the stone circle, the wind no longer howls.  The warriors have ceased to hunt, for the winter swallows men who would subdue it.

The hearth now wears an icy sheath, the pioneer homestead returned to the earth.

As the rifleman ventures onto the creek, its surface begins to crack.

And the night skiers . . . one day, they too shall rest in frosted graves.

 

Dan crosses the face of the clearing, its body behind him.  But he is not alone.  A phantom stalks his every move.  When he veers from the trail, smashing into the brush, it mirrors his evasions.  This shadow that haunts his life will never call off the hunt.

His tips cross, and Dan falls.  As the specter draws close, he stabs at its eyes with his poles, then abandons his skis and attempts to run.  His feet grow heavy with each tortured step.  He panics, convinced he’s aimed back toward the lake and ice that cannot bear his weight.  The sheet will fracture beneath this burden.  Dark water will swallow his corpse.

 

The noise of the creek runs beside him.  Startled, he trips on a root and lands in a drift.  The demon is now set upon him, yelling and waving its limbs.  Dan rises to his feet, braces, and flings his body at its chest.

They roll together in the snow.  It shoves free, and they face one another a final time, panting, their bodies laced with powder.

Dan charges the monster and wrestles it toward the creek.  It struggles and shouts as he leans into the current.  But Dan is determined not to yield.  He will not surrender.  He will become a man of action.

His weight tips the balance.

The shock lasts but an instant.  Water surrounds them, washing their flesh clean of snow.  They are moving, swept along, baptized and redeemed.  He is no longer numb.  The cold disappears, replaced by a refiner’s fire, a blaze that races through him, and he burns.

Matt Forsythe teaches creative writing and American literature at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. His work has appeared in Mid-American Review, thread, The Pinch, and Fiction Southeast.

 

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