Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from our favorite emerging writers
Happy Friday! It's been a real bear of a week for all of us but hopefully we can turn off our climate, pandemic, and political anxiety for a few moments to enjoy the newest piece in our Intimacy series. This week we're featuring a beautiful and haunting story from Canadian writer Keltie Zubko.
We wish you a safe and healthy weekend, and we'll see you next week--
The Derailleur Press team
P.S. our upcoming fiction chap is available for preorder now! Visit our store to reserve yours today.
It’s a good thing these storms only come every twenty years.
This one began as the last one had, lulling us at first with intricate pieces of frozen lace that spun and drifted hypnotically from the sky. Luscious and light, they grew imperceptibly weighty, lost definition and became dense splotches that piled up on every surface. Time distorted and warped so that soon we found ourselves in a tight, silent cocoon, forced to stop and look wide-eyed at each other, wondering how we got here. Who would have thought snow could do all that? When it started this time, I remembered that other storm.
That one, the last big Pacific Northwest storm struck when our kids were little and before my husband died, a confluence of forces from sky and sea, extremes of temperature and moisture, dumping several feet of heavy, wet snow in mere hours. It was more than we could handle. Our city had limited snow removal equipment and our inhabitants lacked the skills or experience to drive in it. It mocked and tested our blasé west coast attitude. We didn’t need or own windshield scrapers and winter boots here meant rain boots. While the four-wheel drive owners frolicked in it, most of us hunkered in and waited it out. At least it taught us the virtue of loving the ones we were isolated with. But this time I waited alone atop the hill at the end of our street, watching it arrive with no other face to mirror mine.
This time, I knew the choice: solitude in the eventual power outage, no one to hold my hand and trace my scars in the darkness, or I could seek some other storm. I could, perhaps, answer the call to blood and bone that still lived, the glance of understanding or tone of voice that leapt across the gap between life and death. I could, I thought, make one last bold drive through the white night of a blizzard and find someone to face it with me.
One unfathomable man sat among the small pickings from the regulars at the local Tim Hortons coffee hangout. There was not much for a widow to choose from, considering age, health, history and morale. I didn’t mean to inveigle myself into their midst, seduced by the sounds of those men in groups, their voices laughing, grumbling, debating, repairing the world in argument at least. They drew me and the other women at loose ends, those retired men, tested and tried and congregating every day now in the coffee shop, instead of working. The aging classic car guys gathered with updates about their chrome, polished paint and powerful engines still able to rev. Old gym rats with neat grey hair and knotty muscles arrived showered for their post-workout coffee. Solitary men, chased by insomnia or boredom, ate something sweet and read their papers.
I kept track of them as characters in the daily unfolding story at the local coffee shop. I’d come there at first searching for my husband’s fading shadow, then sat, day after day, longing to bury my face in the soft silvery whiskers of a stranger’s neck, to lose myself in his deep laugh made from pain and experience and untold stories of survival.
He drew and then deflected, drew and evaded me, barely spoke except when he did, he could tell a story in only a few words. He noticed everything and knew everyone. His eyes hinted at a store of tales I both wanted to hear and didn’t want to hear, intrigued but terrified by his look of intimacy with the whole relentless human story. Sometimes I could barely meet his assessing look that I’d noticed for years even before my husband died, his look that bled some desperate emotion. Yet I knew little of him nor he of me except for that expression in his eyes.
I watched them all, spoke sometimes, but mostly eavesdropped, stepping carefully amid those long-term habits and relationships and picked up excerpts and intimations of meaning, overheard, whole sagas exchanged in a few words.
“Where’s the usual gang?” The young worker gestured to the empty seats around the old guy, usually filled with others.
“They are dead, or they are sick, or maybe still sleeping.” I saw tantalizing metaphor in everything, craving backstory. And so I made it up.
But you are still here, I thought. You are up early and make it here, everyday, ready to watch and fight it through and keep on living. Tell me, how have you survived? How can I?
He intercepted my gaze as if he knew what I was thinking. His jaw jutted out, daring me to contradict his words, or bargain with something of my own in return, telling my story, too.
Everyday I saw that look as he watched the room, stories flickering and glimmering just below the surface of his eyes. That look provoked me for about a year, until the night of the storm. Then it made me leave my house, take a stupid chance and head down to Tim’s, alone in the blizzard whether I remained at home or went out into the twenty-year storm.
I didn’t even know his full name. I did know that he was wounded too. That was obvious to anyone paying attention. He had lost parts of himself somewhere along the way. Divorce, cancer, and all those things that weathered and tested, toughened or destroyed aging flesh, like mine. I too had parlayed everything I had in life to be able to recognize that look: all the experience of an older woman, losing a breast (though not my life), a dead husband, preoccupied grown up children, and now comfort and certainty against cold, dark loneliness. But he, having survived, possessed a sly light in his eyes, making me certain he was still alive in there, not finished yet.
I reconstructed his history, gathered from small conversations. In the last storm, his family and marriage were intact, he was still building his business, as oblivious to my world, as I’d been to his. We had each sheltered in our own family world during that storm.
A lot changed in twenty years. Day after day, I sat among the regulars, and brooded in the unassuming coffee shop, evading my ghosts or communing silently with that one man, telling him my story and imagining his.
Take me home, old man. Don’t ask, don’t be polite, or scared. Just grab me to your life-worn skin, that wrinkled sunburnt skin that smells of orchard, cut grass and sweat, still weeping with pheromones, and undefeated life.
He gave no sign of hearing the things I would never speak aloud.
But now, the second storm descended. New families in the neighbourhood expected to get to work and the kids to school, tomorrow. They didn’t know these rogue west coast storms, but I saw how it would unfold when the first giant flakes drifted then plummeted down, soon sticking to the driveway. Eventually their weight would pull the branches of the trees into a ponderous archway leading to my huge almost darkened house. I could not shovel the driveway myself, like my husband and sons had, digging out a narrow track through yards of heavy packed snow. I knew I should at least maintain the illusion of freedom and move my vehicle to park near the road, then trek back up to the cavernous house, where I could possibly keep the stairs up to the front door cleared.
Instead, my mind drifted to his house, a mile down the twisting road, close to the nearest shops, and walking distance to Tim’s. I drove by his house a lot. It was lit just like mine, always only in one or two rooms near the back. At the top of his two-story house overlooking the busy road later tonight he’d hear traffic spin out all the way up the hill under his bedroom window. If I remained in mine just a short distance away, I would be buried in silence, hearing nothing in my tomb of snow.
The storm pressed down on our street preparing to lock me in. I would have to venture out alone and shake the trees so the boughs didn’t crack under the storm’s burden. I’d already hauled armloads of firewood for the inevitable power outage. I’d go carefully into the back, making sure the storage tents didn’t founder and collapse with the weight of snow. It would be a foot or two. I’d have to start soon, making a trail down to my SUV, getting closer to our street, which might be unploughed for days. I had milk and eggs, canned goods and a freezer of meals made in huge family quantities but packaged just for one.
The ghosts of the last storm, my husband and boys, gathered helplessly around me. Then, I swear, they pushed me to the closet seeking my Prairie winter clothes, hoarded for these rare occasions, waiting beside my husband’s empty snow boots, his coat and gloves that would never be used again. I found my keys, fingers stumbling over themselves. I knew the narrative: be calm and stoic, the sensible widow and mother who did not worry her distant children. Be considerate and content to remember that other big storm rather than chance a new one. Be willing to loiter in the darkening past, a shadow among the other shadows, unchanged and unchanging. Safe.
But something cried out to that man in Tim’s as I checked my emergency kit, grabbing my phone charger, then flipped the lights, fastening and securing the house. Did I really expect him to hear?
There is nothing to prove. Just the last moments to employ. Wrap me up and take me home with you, you battle-tested old man. Neither of us have time to squander. We could sit separately, watching more suns rise and set. More snow falling. You’ll get more grizzled and wrinkled. One of these days, you won’t be able to lift me. Grab me while you still can, pull me along with you, take me home, unroll me like a worn-soft blanket, with holes and missing threads, but sweet spots, too. I don’t care if you just want to sleep. So, sleep. But tell me your stories before you do.
Dressed and fortified against the storm, I stepped over the threshold and pulled the front door closed on the ghosts within. It was the same door we’d opened after the last storm, twenty years ago, to find the front step packed with snow to the height of my tall husband. We’d tunneled through it, inch by inch, to get out.
I locked up behind me. Flakes clung to my clothes and hair. I looked up for one last glance at the frosted cedar shakes of my steep roof. What could this storm do when the worst had already happened? I turned my back on my own front door and made my slow, careful way down the steps.
Even without the yard light the snow illuminated the murky, dense forest surrounding me. Night-time in the usual rainy winter here was like falling down a deep well, impenetrable by even the full moon shining directly overhead. The snow brought light, a blessed relief. The quiet flurries instead of pounding, heavy rain changed everything, giving form and dimension and above all, clarity to the dark forest where the overhanging fir and cedars usually devoured the light. How nice to face it full on, each tree made friendly so that nothing lurked there in the shadows.
I warmed my SUV, reliable yet as much a relic as me. In four-wheel drive it crawled the long driveway to our street, as I guessed at the edges, then turned toward town, praying I wouldn’t lose momentum or meet an oncoming vehicle. But my neighbours were smarter than me and I went alone down another hill, back up the next and out onto the main road. It would close behind me eventually and if I failed, I’d never get back to my lonely retreat before the storm shut me out. Which was worse, I wondered, to be shut in or shut out?
I headed carefully to the familiar parking lot of the little strip mall now transformed into a maze of obvious traps and hidden obstacles. I crunched into a spot I hoped would be easy to leave. Only the grocers and Tim’s were still open and just a few vehicles rested under deepening coats of white. The sign lit the path to the doorway through the thick slush, staining it bright red.
A few regulars gathered inside but of course he wasn’t there. Most people were at home, safe and warm, while the youthful staff acted like it was a sleepover party, to keep the shop open, giving respite for those with no where else to go – the homeless, the foolhardy and me.
I sipped steaming, milky tea, not satisfied by its warmth or contemplating my situation, having taken this silly, impulsive chance. I would be stranded there in my whim, but still I checked each snowy form struggling along the rutted path past the plate glass windows. A few came in, grabbed hot drinks and donuts, leaving tracks of muddy water behind. The chill from outside taunted me each time the door opened, a cold portent of the night to come.
I had placed myself in a parallel universe to the warm, busy place it normally was, hallucinating the brooding man who watched from his usual spot. That booth was empty now. Soon I wouldn’t get back up my hill to the past, sealed and keeping guard there. I would be stuck, excluded and alone, under the bright cold lights inside Tim’s. Few remained but the small staff, watching over one guy asleep by the fake fireplace that put out no real heat if you stretched your hands toward it. The tea barely warmed my fingers. I sat pretending it was a late summer evening and I could leave and get safely home any time I liked. As usual, I told myself improbable stories.
Tell me we’re not done yet. Pull me up and wrap me in your arms. I know you can overcome your backstory, just for the time it takes to abscond with me. Place me on your big brass bed, or better yet, promise me the meadow behind your house, green next summer after the storm has abated, with long grass and spotted with little daisies. Take me there, never mind the consequences. They won’t last long anyway, at our age.
Then I saw a tall form trudging toward the door, through the swirling snow, tinted red from the resolute sign above the shop. He carried a couple of sodden paper bags from the grocery store next door. When he entered, it was like the dazzling early morning sun rising to come through the windows, suddenly blinding those of us waiting for dawn. He seemed immune to the storm, bringing in the chill from outside, but also warming the place in a wave of imaginary heat.
I felt he was a refugee just like me, driven from his lonely sanctuary a few blocks up the street, tramping through the storm down the hill to where I waited.
Surviving other storms I knew nothing about, the man came through the doorway and didn’t bother joining the small lineup. Instead of looking warily into my eyes, he came straight to me, finally provoked.
“I saw your truck outside. Do you have trouble? What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you.”
He acted as if he hadn’t heard my words. “Don’t you see the storm out there? Do you know what that means?” I didn’t answer and he continued, “Do you remember the last one?”
“Yes. I do.”
When he didn’t answer, and I continued, “What about you? What’re you doing out in this?”
He held up the bags and shook his head, bending over me as if we were long-time friends. One hand rested on the table in front of me, a large, experienced hand, and then he lifted it, extended it to me, still shaking his head at me. I raised my own head further, looking into his eyes, faded but not done yet. Nor were they icy, but graced with little lines at the sides made from laughter or pain. I had no idea which. I heard the whisper of my husband’s voice saying that an unreasonable gesture is sometimes warranted. Then I abandoned my drink and reached to grasp his hand and let him pull me up as if he’d done it many times before. I put on my winter gear once more to go out into the storm with him.
“Much longer and you won’t get out of this parking lot. Did you want to be stranded here for the next few days?”
“No, no I didn’t.” I let relief sound only in my own head and gave him contrition instead.
My SUV sat innocently under the heavy snow, a disguise growing by the second. Or perhaps it was a blindfold.
“Did you bring your truck here?”
He shook his head, turned his face down at me.
“Can I drive you up the hill, back to your place?” I ventured at him. He’d dropped my hand for me to put on my gloves and prowled beside me like a huge snowy animal, like I shouldn’t mistake his kindness for anything else.
The story continued in my head: That animal had been shot, injured and was still bleeding in the snow as we stepped carefully to my vehicle. He did not take my arm, and picked his way on ahead, the landscape glowing from the deep red of the sign on our tracks. What was the real story? Who had hurt him so deeply that it still bled, the night of the storm, years later on the field of pristine white, covering all other human traces. I could see it, even if most people couldn’t. I had the same kind of tracks.
Halos of falling snowflakes circled the streetlights and the pathways in the little mall’s parking lot meandered through a forest of abandoned cars. Still the wintry shroud did not quite cover the shadows at our feet. Maybe it showed in my face, wondering what I’d done.
“Do you have to turn everything into a story?” he asked.
I almost stopped in the slushy tracks that chilled my feet with every step. “How do you know that?”
“I see you,” he said with no expression I could read on his lips, but I knew they would burn the ice off mine. He led the way to my vehicle, and I unlocked it with trembling hands. He placed his soggy bags in the back seat as if he’d done that a thousand times and grabbed the brush to clear the windows.
I started the engine to let it warm up again and he swept the snow off the windows and hood. He tapped the brush, replaced it in the back, and climbed into the passenger seat. His presence steamed the windows and heated up my old vehicle.
Driving like it was my penance and I had to get it right, I started out of the parking lot, praying the steep hill toward his place wouldn’t defeat me in front of him, after all my bravado. He sat there vigilant and unreadable, not that I dared look at him, since I was intent on the icy slope. It was a deceiving hill, that seemed gentle at first. I’d driven past him in the summer climbing back to his place, sweating, the vista of the valley behind him. I remembered him saying once that climbing that hill back to his house was like dragging not a cross but the weight of a cathedral behind him. I wanted to know what he had meant by that.
It was a back road, tricky with the thick snow over ice, but my nerve and patience held. I let the four-wheel drive do its work so I didn’t spin out. I had made a lifetime of patience. The closer we got, the more I could feel him about to speak, weighing words. I wondered what ghosts waited at his place. I knew all the nooks in my own that wouldn’t bear examination on a whim or short notice. I didn’t want to see his closets any more than I wanted to show him mine, so I decided.
I would drop him off at his gate and carry on up the treacherous road to my own. The ditches and slippery pavement, ice and blurred edges would be more comforting than this taciturn man with all his hidden wounds and unknown subtext. I didn’t want to start all over again, assuaging injuries I hadn’t made, not knowing their origin or prognosis. Yes, I had soothed and washed my husband’s body as he lay dying, washed it like a lover and soothed him like a mother would then said farewell. I could do almost anything after having done that. There was nothing beyond me. Except maybe this man who noticed too much.
I didn’t have the words to tell him. Instead, I would go up the side road, drop him off at his driveway, turn and retrace my solitary way home. Maybe it wasn’t too late. And I’d never go back to Tim’s again.
We made it up the hill despite the shifting coat of snow over a patina of ice, polished by the wiser ones who had preceded us much earlier, getting home and off the streets to certainty. Well, at least to safety.
We approached his driveway with only a short way left to go. How would I ever make it home to my place now? Panic lurked deep in my gut. The storm was frightening, but it was better than being with this inscrutable man with the tales locked up inside.
My mouth was dry and fingertips freezing.
I said, “I’ll just drop you at your driveway,” just as he said, “You won’t get up your hill, you know. You can stay at my place for the storm. You’ll be okay.”
I didn’t dare take my eyes off the ambiguous tracks in the snow.
“Should I park outside, on the street?”
“Not on the street. In my yard,” he said in his deep voice, slow and certain, “The gate is open. Pull in beside my truck. See, there is a fire in the fireplace.”
I hadn’t lit my woodstove all day, but I could tell without opening my window that smoke scented the crisp air, wreathing the trees around his house.
Ah, I thought. Into his yard. I let up my grip on the steering wheel, held it as I wanted to hold his wounded flesh.
“I’d like to hear your stories.”
“Are you sure?” He asked.
I drove into his yard where his neighbors might see my brave, aging SUV parked there, sojourning perhaps for days, if this storm was like the last.
It wasn’t the same, however. The night became a long and winding walk through the forgiving old forest, stumbling on the uneven path, following the blood-stained track, feeling my way that looked so different now from the last time I had travelled it in the other storm.
That is how I came to be listening to stories while staring up at the skylight into the falling snowflakes, like I was traveling through space and time, heartache and courage. They melted on the warmed surface as the embers in the grate slumbered then roused themselves again.
In the big brass bed at the top of his house, overlooking the road and down the valley, we heard the hopeful fools and seekers, out in their cars, revving their engines as they lost traction and shifted gears to regain a hold on the road. But they climbed the hill eventually despite slipping backwards, skidding on the treacherous ice beneath a shifting panoply of soft, deceiving snow that covered their tracks. There, he told me his stories and I discarded my illusions.
Too bad these storms only come every twenty years.
Keltie Zubko is a Western Canadian writer, based on Vancouver Island, BC. Her work has appeared in anthologies and literary magazines (digital, print, and audio) in Canada, the U.S., and internationally.