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A blizzard swept through New England on the night Gretchen and I arrived, throwing our marriage into question and quickening a slow process of separation which had already been underway for years. She’d been offered a lectureship at the now-defunct Swain School of Design—that’s why we came—and so the two of us had found a small cottage for rent in the nearby town of Westport, just a ways up from the harbor.
Most of our possessions were still traveling eastward across America; we had no firewood to burn, and the furnace was on the fritz at the worst possible time. With the snow falling steadily for two days straight and a gale-force wind bearing it into every crack and crevice, all we could do was gaze out the frosted windows and shiver. We ate through our meager store of food—a small baguette, a half-round of Brie, a box of leftover egg foo young—as we argued softly about our unpreparedness. We slept on the living room floor in our sleeping bags, beneath a heap of dirty laundry for added warmth.
The clouds finally lifted on the third morning and a blinding whiteness poured into our new home, where we quietly lay in the bitter cold. We still hadn’t risen from that great mound of clothing when a gentle tapping came to one of our windows. I got up and walked the icy floorboards in my pajamas, and there through the window caught my first glimpse of our neighbor, Chris. His face was shrouded by a knotted mess of red hair and an ample beard; my first impression was that he must be some weary traveler, lost in the storm and hoping to warm himself by a fire. The snowdrifts were chest-high along the northern wall of the house where the front door was, so he had to dig downward into the cavity around the window in order to make room, as a dog might tunnel under a fence.
“The new neighbors!” he cried when he saw me. “You’re alive in there!”
I looked back to Gretchen where she lay, and to my surprise she was laughing for the first time in days. It was true: this goofy stranger didn’t seem to pose much of a threat. When at last he’d carved an acceptable space around the window, he reached over the pile of snow behind him and grabbed what looked to be a loaf of bread, wrapped up tightly in tinfoil. I opened the window to a rush of air and he passed me the package before swinging his leg over the sill and stepping into the living room.
He glanced down to the floor by his boots, where a pile of snow had fallen. “Well, I’m sorry about that,” he said. Then he took in the empty house and saw Gretchen still tucked under all that dirty laundry on the floor, adding, “You haven’t got yourselves a bed, I see.”
“Not yet,” I told him. “We only just got here.”
“This won’t do,” he said, and he went right back out through the window, stepping again to the cold. “My wife and I are across the street in the big yellow house with green trim—it’s like a giant sunflower, you’ll see. Why not throw on your gear and join us?”
“We don’t want to be a hassle,” I said. “I’m sure they’ll have the roads cleared soon.”
“We’ve got a fine woodstove,” he said. “It was built about a hundred years ago but it still heats the whole house. It might as well be a blast furnace, it’s that warm.”
“Maybe,” I said. “It is cold over here, that’s for sure.”
I closed the window as he set off into the snowy world. Gretchen, meanwhile, had already risen from the makeshift bedding and was now changing into her snowsuit with a determination that seemed almost confrontational.
“We’re going over there this very instant,” she said. “He offered, we’re accepting. It’s what people do when a big blizzard like this rolls through.”
“People move in with strangers just for the hell of it?”
“That’s what I’m going to do. You can freeze to death if you so desire.”
We each ate a slice of the bread—it was banana bread with chocolate chips inside—then I bundled up as Gretchen danced around the empty rooms in excitement. She was in her best mood since our arrival, and I told myself that I should try not to spoil it by being grumpy about everything as usual. The front door was frozen shut, so we crawled out the window after we were all set, then lingered a moment in the space cleared under the eaves.
“I want you to try having some fun today,” she told me. “This is like a brand new country for us over here and I want to start off right. I don’t want us to fall back into that same old rut—we’ve got to break free, we should try at the very least.”
“I’ve just now realized we don’t even know this man’s name,” I said, but it was too late. She’d already turned away and was tromping through the snow with long, high-stepping strides. She was following the footprints Chris had laid.
The walls of their home were adorned with old farm tools, mosaics of sea glass, relics from the bygone days of whaling. There were harpoon heads, razor-sharp spades made for carving out blubber, whale teeth and walrus tusks etched with scrimshaw; potted plants hung from the ends of ropes all around, tied into elaborate knots and fed through strange pulley systems that looked like they belonged in the riggings of a tall ship.
Chris’s wife, Catherine, fried sourdough pancakes and a slab of ham on their wood-burning cook stove as Chris rushed from room to room, gathering four pairs of cross-country skis and poles, an old pair of rucksacks, and a bamboo fishing pole for some peculiar intention, given the snow and the time of year. I would have been perfectly happy to sleep straight through till the roads were plowed and the power returned, but Gretchen fed off the excitement of the house—off Chris and Catherine working in tandem—so she too buzzed with spirit as I sat on the couch and sulked at the oddity of the situation.
The four of us ate the pancakes with honey and blueberry preserves on a long table of coarse wood, then ventured out to the brilliance of the day. The sun curved above the southern horizon, cold and distant, and the sky was a light, frosted blue as you might see high up in the mountains, or on a very crisp, clear morning.
I skied up front beside Chris and our wives followed behind. We passed groups of children as we went; they were everywhere, sledding down the hillsides, building armies of snowmen, playing war games with friends. They shouted their excited cries into the frigid air and a wild freedom rose up around them, this being the most complete shutdown of society they had ever known. And the adults of all ages were out too, playing joyously alongside their daughters and sons. Almost every last man and woman seemed to have some sort of liquor with them—the town’s fire marshal had even set up a cauldron of mulled wine and was offering Styrofoam cups of it to passersby, free of charge.
“Tell me something about Oregon,” Chris said after I mentioned where we’d come from. “It must be gorgeous. Enormous waterfalls, tall trees. Then there’s Bill Walton…what an asset he’s been for the Trail Blazers these last few seasons.”
“Well, there’s a place called Crater Lake where the water’s a thousand feet deep,” I said. “I only went once as a child, but it’s always stuck with me. It has the clearest water you’ve ever seen, and it sits right inside the basin of a blown-up volcano.”
“I think I must’ve seen a picture of it,” he said. “It would’ve been in National Geographic, something like that.”
“There’s an old tree trunk that floats around in it. It stands up absolutely vertical, with about five feet of it bobbing at the top of the lake. Nobody knows where it came from or why it continues to float around like that, but it’s been doing it for hundreds of years.”
“It’s got a soggy bottom, that’s my guess. A bobber and a sinker, all in one.”
“We’re happy to have a real city a short drive away from us now. Where we lived it was all cattle and rangeland. We were east of the big rivers and tall trees. Portland was a five hour trek for us, we hardly went there at all.”
“That still sounds nice to me,” he said.
With that, he took off racing, his skis gliding smoothly, his poles a blur as he moved away. I tried to keep up with him as we left the more populated neighborhoods behind and traveled over winding roads of farmland and hardwood forest, but soon he passed from sight. After a while I took to following his tracks, trusting we weren’t bound someplace too far away. Gretchen and Catherine then caught up to me and the three of us skied together for a few minutes until Catherine could no longer bear our sluggish pace either.
“I’ll go find that silly man,” she said, laughing and rolling her eyes as if embarrassed he had left me behind. “He’s always running off like this, he can’t help it.” Then she too jetted off ahead of us, gliding forward even faster than Chris.
“Where do you think they’re taking us?” I asked once Catherine was out of earshot.
“On an adventure,” Gretchen said. “She wouldn’t reveal any specifics.”
“I don’t know what’s with them. They can’t stand still for more than a few minutes at a time…they act like wandering off into the wilderness is the only logical thing for us to do. Am I the only one who wants to sit in my pajamas with a cup of hot cocoa?”
“They enjoy the outdoors,” she said flatly. “What do you want from me?”
“This is beginning to feel like a death march is all.”
The two of us continued on in silence, broken now and then by the thumps of snow clods falling from overburdened boughs in the woods. The sky turned a darker blue as the sun moved west—it had been hours since we’d passed another soul, and Chris and Catherine had been gone long enough to cause some concern. They had the backpacks with food and water, after all, and only they knew the way. So Gretchen and I skied stubbornly onward, until at last the tracks we followed veered off the road and into the woods, following what looked to be the course of a stream. We rested a moment and peered into the depths of the forest, saw the rise and fall of the path they had taken and heard the muffled gurglings of water from beneath the snow. And then, still without uttering a word and after sharing only a passing glance at each other, we entered the woods in file and increased our stride.
It wasn’t long before we came upon them lying in the snow together at a spot where the last sunrays strained through the branches, flickering off the ground. They still wore their skis—the tails slotted into the snow and the tips aimed skyward—and they lay in a straight line with their heads joined up at the middle and their legs stretched in opposite directions.
“We’ve almost made it,” Chris said, lifting his head up from the snow. “Only a short ways farther and we’ll reach the springhead, where the fishing is.”
“How do you plan on fishing with all this snow?” I asked.
“It’ll be open up there,” he said. “The water, I mean.”
Chris and Catherine wriggled out from the snow and onto their feet, then Catherine passed a canteen around and we all had a good drink from it. I was exhausted and drenched in sweat from the great exertion, but the longer we stayed still, the more the cold crept in through the edges of my jacket.
“I hope it isn’t much farther,” Gretchen asked. “I’m starting to think I might collapse.”
“It won’t be much longer,” Chris told her. “We’re taking you to one of the best places. I only hope it hasn’t changed from how I remember it.”
We began the final push. Catherine and Chris went on ahead in order to reach the spring before us—so that they could set up camp, they told us, and make our arrival more comfortable. I hadn’t considered camping as an option before this and the idea of it alarmed me. But it was getting on in the day and we were hours from home in a place we’d never been before—we didn’t have much of a choice. Gretchen skied in front and I watched her go, pleased by how she had admitted to feeling tired. It seemed like a victory, albeit a small and petty one, that for once, I wasn’t the one struggling and complaining.
The shadows lengthened and merged as the sun angled lower, and the puffed-out songbirds that had stayed for winter—chickadees, nuthatches and cardinals—began to sing their evening songs. I was frightened by the thought of where we might be going, but also exhilarated by the possibilities. It shocked me that I felt so unencumbered when normally I would have been distraught, thinking only of a warm shower and a cozy bed.
“Listen to that quiet,” I whispered. “I almost feel like I can hear the moon coming up.”
“I’m glad you’re finally enjoying yourself,” Gretchen said. “I don’t think you’ve been so free and easy since college. Admit it, these crazy hippies have brought out the best in you.”
“Free and easy?” I stopped skiing briefly with the sudden and passionate desire to kiss her, but I made no move to do it. The tracks stretched out before us, four endless gashes in the white snow. Something had changed between us—we had passed a threshold of sorts—and a peaceful sadness drew us deeper into the dusk. It was all I could do to keep from weeping with sorrow at the shame of our small, trifling life together, but also with relief that we would not let it drag on forever. We skied, almost blindly as the darkness began to take hold of us, until at last an orange flicker of firelight showed us to where Chris and Catherine awaited.
The springhead formed a perfect ring that shone back the campfire’s glow. We saw what our guides had accomplished in that short time and it seemed impossible: four chairs cut into the snow in an arc around a fire, a snow shelter so large you could almost stand upright in its center, and a backcountry feast fit for royalty, already under preparation.
In some historic miracle of angling, Chris had pulled what must have been the largest brook trout in existence from that small pool, using only the simple rod he had with him. This fish was as long as a steelhead on its spawning run. It was laid out in the snow, shiny and black against the white, its yellow and orange speckles glistening like galaxies on its skin as Chris ran a whetstone along a fillet knife just above it.
“He catches fish everywhere he goes,” Catherine told us. “He can’t help it, it’s in his blood somehow. He must’ve made a million casts so far and I don’t doubt he’ll make a million more by the time he’s through. I think he was a bear in his past life, maybe an osprey.”
“I knew she’d be here,” the man murmured, chuckling to himself as he pierced the soft of the underbelly with the knife. “No one’s paid her a visit in years, she’s been waiting just for me.”
Later, after breaking down the fire to its red-hot cinders, Catherine cooked the two thick fillets on a flat river stone set atop the rippling coals. She roasted potatoes she had brought along as well, and prepared fantastic dumplings made only of flour, spring water and trout grease—a testament to her culinary might. We ate it all as we sat back on our snowy chairs, basking in the warmth of the fire. Chris had carried a few bottles of wine all that way too, so we drank them to the dregs as we talked late into the night.
“Did you know that Chris rigs up the yachts in Newport for a living?” Catherine asked at one point. “It’s all he’s ever wanted to do. He earns enough each spring and fall to take summers off, most of the winter too.”
“Does it ever frighten you?” Gretchen asked. “Being so high up on a pole like that?”
“I was scared of heights when I was little,” he said. “But then I helped my grandfather reroof his house one summer, and ever since then nobody could pull me down from anything. It’s my absolute favorite thing in the world, that and catching fish.”
“I love stories like that,” Gretchen said. “Conquering your childhood fears, stepping into the unknown. I haven’t done enough of that lately.”
“And here I’ve been sitting indoors my whole life,” I said. “This is the longest stretch of time I’ve spent outside in decades. I must’ve been a Boy Scout the last time I camped.”
“It’ll turn you crazy, staring out windows every day of your life,” Chris said.
“I think it already has,” I said. “There’s no hope for me.”
I looked over at Gretchen and took her hand. She smiled back at me, warm and cheerful in the way of a good neighbor. We’d spent almost fifteen years together by that point, and the rhythm of our life together had turned routine—it was never terrible, it was the sort of mildly depressing reality that most people endure for a lifetime, I suppose.
The four of us sat there a long time, listening to the fire burn out as the wind wove its way through the trees. Finally Gretchen said, “I think we all need a good swim. We’ve got our very own pool to play around in, and we’ve just eaten its monster after all.”
She got up from her snow chair and began to pull branches from the woodpile, breaking them into halves and thirds and building the fire up again to where it would soon burn hotter and brighter than ever. Then she undressed, piece by piece, right up alongside the fire as it grew. She took her gloves off, followed by her hat and scarf, and soon enough her entire snowsuit lay empty on the bare earth heated by the fire pit.
“Well?” she said as she dropped her long underwear on top of the snowsuit. “Are you three coming with me, or what?”
She took a dozen running strides through the snow to the spring and dove deep into the water just as a sound like a firecracker rang through the campsite. A pinecone had caught fire and blown, and soon Gretchen broke the surface again and squealed, loud as a child. I stood up along with Chris and Catherine, and we too began to drop our clothes by the fire, which was now whirling back to life, gathering strength from the wind.
I dove into the pool and swam straight for its sandy bottom. The others were already in there, screaming like heretics at the stake. My head ached, and a pain like a shockwave, as though I had been tossed to unforgiving stone, rolled through my body as I descended. I opened my eyes but closed them almost immediately. I felt they would have frozen solid if I’d looked a moment longer, but in that instant I turned back and gazed above me, saw three sets of legs kicking to stay afloat, and all around them churned a storm of fiery ripples.
I reached the bottom with my eyes squeezed shut and my hands outstretched. Grasping the fine kernels and holding them tightly, I thought of how they must have been kneaded by the bubbling spring for a million years to get so soft, and how in a million more they might well be gone altogether. As I shot back for the surface my mind was set on showing everyone how I had made it to the bottom. The proof was right there in my fist, but when I burst up alongside Gretchen and Catherine and saw them laughing, chattering their teeth with steam rising from their shoulders and hair, I suddenly felt no desire to make a show of it. I dropped the handful of sand and watched it fall to the abyss, a cloud of white dust glimmering against the dark now and then as some tiny speck of mica caught the light just so.
“I feel like I’m on fire!” I cried. “I’m burning hot somehow.”
“That’s no surprise at all,” Catherine said. “If a man swam in this hole every day of his life, he might live to be a thousand.”
“Methuselah Spring,” Gretchen said. “My new favorite place.”
Soon the four of us crawled out and headed for the fire. My muscles seized up as I left the pool, and it was a trial to walk those dozen-or-so yards to the campsite, as I’m sure it was for everyone else. We came into the heat frail, creaky and befuddled, but after a minute or so we were back at it again, strong and youthful as before. I put my snowsuit on and felt my blood rushing, trying to warm every last inch of me. I looked to Gretchen—my wife, the only woman I’d ever truly loved—and saw her eyes gleaming like gemstones, a saintly smile on her lips. I had the sense then that I knew only the smallest portion of her, the crumbs of who she was, not much more than she could tell you of her life in an hour or so.
I’ve dreamed of that voyage for years and years, and strangely, I’m always laughing when I awake—a joke somebody told that I can’t quite remember. Sometimes the four of us are sleeping like wolves in the snow shelter, and others we’re emerging from the woods the next morning and it feels as if we’ve traveled back in time.
Catherine died suddenly not long after that night—a car accident, it was two years later at the most—and Chris has been gone for a week now. The Friends Meeting House held a celebration of his life just the other day, all these Quakers, young and old, speaking of him as if he were born of the sky or may simply have emerged from the sea one day and decided to stay on dry land awhile. There were a great many stories shared, and rounds of laughter that led to the kind of weeping where you’re both thankful and heartbroken at once.
Gretchen was there, sitting right beside me the whole time.
We walked out together when it was over and went down to the harbor to dangle our legs off the dock. She married again after me, but he didn’t work out either so now both of us are single. I put an arm around her shoulder and we watched the sun go down, listening to the waves and the gulls, the buoys clanging against the outgoing tide.
“I like to think of us bickering as we cook our suppers,” I told her. “Whispering little barbs now and then and taking turns at pouting. We’d sleep in different beds by this point, of course, or maybe we’d have our own rooms altogether. I imagine it often, I do. It doesn’t sound entirely out of the question, that’s all I’m saying.”
She went quiet for a long time and I could feel her pulling away from me. It was a stupid thing to say, I hadn’t meant to come on so strong. Finally, she squirmed out from under my arm, stood above me and told me she could see it too: “It’s a vision of another life,” she said. “I can’t say if it would’ve worked out for better or worse. Some people are happy with just about anyone, for others it’s the exact opposite. Maybe that’s us, who knows?”
She sat back down beside me and leaned her head into my shoulder. We stayed close until the stars came out, and then we sat there for longer still before going our separate ways. This was only a few days ago, mind you. I’m an old man now—footsore and beaten down by the passing of friends and family members, baffled by the state of the world—and yet still those hours in the snow with Chris and Catherine seem like a vein of gold shot through the grey stone of my life. I didn’t ask and she made no mention of that day, but I knew she was mulling it over the same, trying to make some sense of things—that great blizzard and the hard road we traveled, our sacrament in the deep, dark woods. A fish that was only a spell.
Tim Griffith is originally from Southeastern Massachusetts but has spent the past decade and a half living in the West. His stories have appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. He teaches writing at Boise State University and is at work on a novel.