This Winter Heart
Snow falling like a thick white duvet, tucking-in the world before it goes to sleep.
We sneak out of the house in the dark, as quiet as mice. Jane is cold but I’m wrapped up warm and snug. My sister never goes anywhere unless she’s under-dressed or wearing the wrong kind of shoes for the weather.
We vault the low fence at the edge of our parents’ property, cross the open field, and scramble down the side of the snow-banked ravine, where we find him huddled against the trunk of a dead tree.
A carrot as a nose. Two pieces of coal for eyes. A battered bowler hat perched on his big old snowball head. One of father’s old pipes stuck into his face where a mouth might be. A thin red scarf wrapped around his non-existent neck. We built him seven years ago, when I was four and Jane was five. He has returned here every year since, whenever the annual snowfall begins. We never question his presence, just accept it as part of the grand mystery of life.
Jane is grinning. Her breath turns powdery and white in the air in front of her face.
- Let’s leave him this time.
- But we always destroy him. To see if he comes back next year.
- Not this time.
- But why?
- Just to see what happens.
I’m not convinced but I’ve always kowtowed to my sister’s demands. She’s a year older and a lifetime wiser than me. It’s the natural order that she takes the lead and I follow; it has never occurred to me to ever question the chain of command.
So we leave him there, in the snow, in the shallow dip in the earth, and we go back home to bed. Jane glances back at me as she walks along the hallway to her bedroom, her eyes wide and excited in her cold white face. She smiles at me but I don’t smile back. She’s spoilt my fun; she has taken from me the joy of destruction.
My dreams are uneasy but by morning they are forgotten; vanished like melted snow. Sunshine streams through the windows. A cold white glare outside. When I hear my mother’s screams, I run straight to Jane’s room.
The open door. Mother and father weeping by the wardrobe. They look soft and empty, like deflating rubber dolls. A soft haze hangs in the air. The smell of damp is lodged in my nostrils; the slightly metallic taste of water on my tongue.
On the bed, a large mound of snow lies in state: a person-shaped drift on top of the soaked mattress. Twisted carrot nose. A couple of black coal eyes. A crumpled bowler hat, its brim creased and bent. Pipe crudely set at an angle. The scarf, red as blood against all the mute, dead white of her absence.
I walk to the window and look out at the snow, wishing that I could see her there, dancing through the drifts in her thin dress and her inappropriate shoes.
I still look for her every year, hoping that she will come back. But neither of them does – not her or the snow effigy we once created. Nobody comes; nothing happens. Just the snow and the cold and the wind gusting through the empty chambers of this frozen winter heart.
© Gary McMahon, 2022