Copyright is held by the author.
THE NORTHERN pines sheltered the abandoned logging road from the frozen light of a January sun, leaving the pillow white snow in brilliant shadow. Grey, white and brown were the colours that John, a traveller in this land of Fancy, saw as he drove the snowmobile too slowly for his taste and too quickly for his wife.
“Slow down, you’ll get us killed,” Margaret shouted at him through their helmets.
The winter air froze the words into flakes.
John said nothing, resisting the urge to crank the skidoo up another notch. The cabin remained another five minutes away, five minutes too far. Whose woods are these? he wondered.
As if responding to her angry complaints, the engine sputtered and died. That left them riding in sudden silence for a few seconds. The virgin snow muffled the treads’ clattering. When the machine slowed to a stop, Margaret said nothing, for once.
After shifting to neutral, John tried to restart the engine. Nothing. At the lodge they had assured him he had enough gasoline for a dozen trips. Still, he climbed off and checked the gas tank.
“What’s wrong?” Margaret asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Did you check the gas?”
“Try starting it again. Never mind. I’ll do it.”
She tried without success.
John let her. One florist and one composer stranded in the northern Ontario woods on a snowmobile that neither knew the first thing about. He chuckled at the macabre humour of the situation. How long to sunset, anyway?
“It won’t start.”
“Be careful you don’t flood the engine,” he replied.
“You probably already did. Well, what are you going to do about this?”
“I intend to call CAA,” John replied. He flipped up the visor on his helmet. The bitter cold stuck pins into his nose and cheeks. His breath froze into a tiny cloud. How cold was it? If he spit, would it freeze before it hit the ground? He wanted to try but knew that would just start Margaret again.
“Well, don’t just stand there, call.”
Wearing his snowmobile mitts he was too clumsy to pull his cellphone out and dial it, so he took one off. The phone beeped and flickered to life. It scanned back and forth; then it put itself to sleep.
“Stop playing. Give me the phone,” she said.
John put the phone in her gloved hand and turned to pull on his mitt again. How cold was it? Two minutes ago, the sunshine had warded off a chill. Now, with his fingers numb, John wondered. What time was it? He had a watch on his wrist inside his snowmobile suit (They didn’t call them snow suits, although that was what they most resembled.) He didn’t want to know enough to push the sleeve band back far enough to find it.
“You didn’t have to throw it at me. Look what you did. It’s somewhere in the snow. Give me a hand.”
John turned. Margaret was squatting, running her hands through the pillow white snow, searching.
“You tossed the phone at me and it fell. Now help me find it.”
“I put it in your hand and you dropped it.”
“Don’t blame it on me. Just find the freaking phone.”
No phone. The tiny modern electronic marvel must have slipped beneath the white snow to nestle underneath some ancient bough or rock. After 10 minutes, John straightened out, his back stiff.
“Don’t move. You’ll step on it and then we’ll never find it,” Margaret said, still searching, now five feet away from where she had stood. As if the phone could have flown that far in falling.
John glanced at the sky. Were the shadows taking on a more ominous shade? What time was it? They’d left the lodge parking lot at 3:45. This should be a 20-minute ride, according to the man who rented them the cottage. They should only be five minutes from it. That meant some time past four. How long until sunset?
“I’m going to try the snowmobile again,” John said, shivering. Christ, how he hated the cold and the winter. “Besides, the phone wouldn’t help anyway. Do you know where we are?”
“We’re exactly where you brought us,” she replied. “You wanted to come up here.”
John said nothing. That complaint contained a smidgen of truth. She had wanted them to get away from the world and life, from the pressures that seemed to push their buttons. She wanted them to have time to discuss their future. Once they couldn’t stop talking to each other. Now they only shouted at each other.
When he tried the starter, it ground. Nothing. “Must be something clogging the gas line.”
“My husband, the mechanic. What are you going to do?”
“Nothing. I don’t have the tools and, as you pointed out, I don’t have the expertise. Once we reach the cabin, we can call.”
“With what? You lost our phone.”
“I imagine we’ll find a phone in the cabin. Even if there isn’t, they’ll come looking for us in a couple of days. We have the snowmobile.”
“Well, I’m not leaving it. It’s on my company credit card. Besides, you don’t know how far it is to the cabin.”
Five minutes by snowmobile, say thirty miles an hour, say one tenth of that or three miles. Three miles! An hour’s walk on a summer’s day. It would be more in the snow, in these boots, with nightfall coming.
“It’s less than an hour,” John lied.
“An hour’s walk! Are you crazy? John Marmen, I have no intention of walking for an hour in the snow.”
“I don’t see what alternative we have,” he replied.
His feet felt cold despite the boots. He stamped up and down but they still felt cold. The pleasant breeze now had a bite to it. Margaret ignored him, climbed onto the snowmobile and tried it. The starter motor sounded distinctly tired.
“There’s nothing for it. I’m walking back to the lodge,” she said.
“That’s crazy. It must be three times as far.”
“At least I know where I’m going. I can follow the tracks of the snowmobile. Besides, I might meet somebody on the trail.”
“Don’t be an imbecile,” John exploded. “It’ll take you hours to walk back to the lodge. Once the sun goes down it will get colder. We have to make for the cottage.”
They argued but he wouldn’t leave her. In the end she followed him along the old logging road. Eighty years ago lumberjacks laid logs on the ground to make a road for the trucks. For the large wheels it created good traction. To a person walking, the snow covered uneven surface was an invitation to a fall or worse. The light from the setting sun distorted the surface.
After 10 minutes of walking John felt winded. The only benefit was that Margaret had fallen silent as they trudged between the frozen woods in this darkening evening of the New Year.
Why had they ever come to this God forsaken place of trees, rocks and snow? They were city people. He’d been born and raised in Toronto, steps from Bloor and Yonge. Although Margaret had grown up in the north, she fled to the city after high-school. They both reveled in the city core. She ran her flower shop under the TD Centre. He played second violin with the TSO and dreamt someday his symphony would be staged at Massey Hall.
The road started to climb sharply. John trudged on, not looking back to see if Margaret was keeping up.
Somewhere quiet, she had said. Somewhere they could sit and talk things out. If things worked out Margaret would always remind him it had been her idea. Like their trip to Cancun. It had been pretty good, aside from the near disaster on that sunfish, when the boom almost knocked him into the ocean. She insisted that sailing had been his idea. He, who had never stepped on a sailboat before in his life.
The recriminations were part of the problem. Everything that went wrong ended up on his plate. If the store bought too many roses for Valentine’s Day, she had only been listening to his advice. How could he have predicted a snow storm on the thirteenth of February?
He stopped, his breath ragged. His hair felt wet from sweat under the helmet. Did this hill ever end? It was getting dark. If they still had the cell phone, he could have tried it from the top. Good reception there. Was that a flake of snow? What would they do if it started to snow? If he was sweating, why did his feet feel even colder?
Did Margaret have any hint about him and Sylvia, the first cellist? Did she suspect that not all the late rehearsals occurred at the hall? Someone else in this world could listen to him describe his symphony and know what he meant? Sylvia understood because they shared the same background, the same obsession with music.
Why had he ever married Margaret in the first place? Ten years ago, he had pursued her, spending his rent money to buy flowers at her store so he could talk to her. He even wrote her a sonata. (He didn’t know she was tone deaf, back then.) He remembered thinking she had the most perfect breasts.
He reached the top of the hill. Where was the lake? The cabin was supposed to be on a lake. In northern Ontario, with its 10,000 puddles called lakes, why build a cabin anywhere else? But where was their lake? The road curved and the pines marked its edges.
Margaret caught up.
“How far did you say?” she asked. “We’ve been walking for an hour. We should have reached it by now.”
“It must be down there,” John said, waving at the darkness below them.
“I wonder if there are any wolves there.”
“Wolves won’t attack a healthy adult. I saw that on the Discovery Network,” John replied. He started forward before she could begin another argument.
Where did it go wrong? When she opened her own flower shop? When he joined the symphony? Why did every success lead only to bitterness? Why did they fight over everything?
And they did fight. They could argue for days over which show to watch on television, where they had gone to see a movie, whether they saw it on Friday or Saturday, who forgot to turn on the dishwasher. They fought until he lacked the energy for it, until all the arguments coalesced into one accusation, to which he had no response.
So he stopped arguing. No matter what she demanded, he would acquiesce to buy a few minutes of peace. He became a man with blood of snow-broth; one who never felt the wanton stings. He surrendered everything except his music. She hounded him to become successful, leave the TSO and find another position. They could start a second flower shop.
The only sound was the sweep of easy wind and downy flake. He dreamt about his symphony; trying to weave the notes that circled in his head together into a multitude of simultaneous tunes, one for each instrument in the orchestra. As he trudged, he let his mind slip back to his masterpiece. In his head, the entire glorious work reverberated as he imagined it would in Massey Hall. The audience rose, as if pulled by one string and applauded.
They reached a fork in the road. John smiled to himself. They must be close. Those side roads led to the cabins along the shore. The logging road would swing around the lake in a lazy arc. Only a few more minutes.
Margaret remained behind him. Was anyone in the other cabins? No snowmobile tracks on the road; no one had journeyed this way since the last snow fall. Even with the sun down the waning moon gave enough light to walk. The woods were lovely, dark and deep. Moonlight and snow. There was a title for a sonata. Sylvia would appreciate the image.
“I will tell you a tale that must be told by the moonlight alone,” he muttered to himself. How would Beethoven have written it? Or Berlioz? Romantic. It should capture the fragile frigid beauty of moonlit snow. When they got to the cottage, he must jot some notes down. He hummed the tune, hearing the counterpoint in his head. He imagined a duet for violin and cello, an interweaving of limbs. If only Margaret would give him a few moments to write.
Why did he kid himself? This last trip was a thankless sacrifice to place on the altar of a dead marriage. Next week he would move out, make the final surrender. It wouldn’t be as if they hadn’t known this was coming. Margaret always seemed to know his mind before he did. He’d move in with Sylvia.
Why couldn’t she stumble and fall, hit her head and lie there in the snow, go to sleep and never wake up? He glanced back. She remained behind him like a demon of retribution, some punishment for his youth that would hound him for the rest of his life.
Still looking backward, he stepped through the snow crust and crashed to the ground. He remembered hearing a cracking sound as he fell, thinking it must have been a branch buried in the snow. The pain struck and he almost threw up. The white snow in his face felt like sand paper, too cold to melt. He tried to move and the agony from his left leg lanced up his body until he saw black spots floating on the white snow and heard himself grunting from the pain.
Pain. Red pain. Pain like a Bach organ fugue thundered through his body and echoed in the space behind his teeth. The pain closed the universe down to his leg, his body and the bit of road he lay on.
“What now?” Margaret asked. She used the same exasperated tone she reserved for questions about a missing clean shirt on opening night.
“Margaret. Christ, I think I broke my leg. Schubert and Schumann on a shingle. You’ll have to go on and call for help.”
Did she rush up and comfort him, concern in her face? No, she stood staring at him as he flopped on the ground, thinking, trying to think up some remark about his clumsiness. Sure it was his fault. Everything in the world was his fault.
She stopped over him. “Probably just a sprain. Let me see.”
“AHHHHH. Don’t touch it. It’s broken. What? Do you need to see the splinters sticking out?”
He looked down at his leg, twisted under him and saw red on the white snow. “Don’t just stand there. Get me some help.”
“Certainly, John,” she said with an uncharacteristic peacefulness. “I’ll call when I get to the cottage.”
As she walked down the road, John wondered if he should try to move the leg. Already his sweat from the walk felt icy inside his clothing. Rather than look at his leg he watched Margaret walk away.
He saw her pull something out of her pocket. Even at this distance, he could recognize the distinct shape of the cell phone. As he watched, she threw it deep into the woods.