Beth Keefauver

They had been reading to each other in bed from Jack London, a ritual they observed on the eve of winter’s first snow. The baby slept in the room above. The air in their room was cold but the heat of their bodies under the covers kept them warm. Her cheek was nestled in the hollow of his breastbone. She had been listening to the story through his chest and the man in the story breathed and his breath became ice and the meaning of the sentences had drifted into sounds. She could hear her husband speaking the words and underneath each word the low, even tone of his voice hummed like a train. Each word became a train car and each sentence a line of brightly colored boxes moving against the white-grey tundra—first red, then green, now yellow and brilliant blue. She dwelled in the man’s warm, moist breath as the colors passed over her and she drifted through the train cars, though she did not know whether she was still and the cars passing or if she was moving herself as the man’s breath through the cars or both.

He lay the book down and moved her head to the pillow. He turned over on his side and switched off the light.

She woke when she heard the baby in the room above her whimper and fall silent. The cat was asleep on her legs and her legs were numb. She pushed the cat off. She scooted against her husband’s body. He lay heavy and still.

She closed her eyes with her nose pressed between his shoulder blades and tried to go back to sleep. The house was silent. A gust of wind through the window frame left a chill on her neck, as if someone had opened the freezer and closed it again. She heard the wind lift through the white pines on the other side of the wall. She imagined the tops of the pines stirring the night sky as the wind pushed the tallest one, just outside the baby’s window, into an arc. She saw the trunk bend like a spine, snap and crash into the baby’s crib. Her heart pounded. She felt an odd pressure in her ears pulsing with her heart. She heard the baby whimper again, a muffled cry. She lifted the covers, slipped on her robe, and walked through the kitchen to the stairs. She could tell by the silver border around the French doors that it had snowed. The tiles felt like a glacial field.

When she returned with the baby, the cat had moved under the covers between her husband’s legs. She set the baby on the bed and removed her robe. The baby cried, reaching for her. She slid under the comforter and lay the baby between herself and her husband as the baby found her nipple. He smelled of sweet cream and urine. His body was warmer than the cat’s and her husband’s bodies and she wished he were naked against her skin. She wanted to remove his pajamas but she was too tired and they had just gotten settled. She tried to go back to sleep as the baby sucked.

Her feet were cold and kept her awake. She ran one toe along her husband’s shin. Her toenail caught his hair. She rested one foot against his, cradled in his arch. She moved the other foot between his leg and the cat’s warm fur. She listened to her husband’s breathing. On each exhale, he sang out a soft note like a sigh. She thought, at least he doesn’t snore. She thought, the sound is sweet, the way a child’s un-self-conscious singing is sweet. But it was no use; the sound irritated her. She put her hand on his shoulder and rocked him gently.

“Shhhh, honey, you’re doing it again.”

He grunted and resumed his deep breathing. She slid her arm, already chilled, back under the covers and around the baby’s body. She closed her eyes. The heat pump came on. The end of her nose was numb, her nostrils raw, her throat like sandpaper. She wanted water, but she would have to pull the baby off and turn completely over to reach her glass.

The baby’s sucking slowed. She concentrated on her breathing, making each breath deep to coax her brain into sleep. She breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth. In her yoga class, she learned that breathing this way helped maintain core warmth. She concentrated on the rhythm of her breath. In her meditation class, she learned that concentrating on her breath helped her fall asleep. The top of her head was still exposed. The draft from the window bent the hairs on her scalp. In one motion, she gripped the quilt, comforter, and flannel sheet in her fist and pulled the whole system over her head. She closed her eyes. Her breath was warm and moist and filled the cavity under the covers with a dense humidity. She made a tiny opening between the covers and her pillow. Cold, crisp air streamed in.

She could not sleep. She recalled having once read that in Chinese medicine, insomnia is the result of disharmony of the spirit. That you are living a life that is not consistent with who you are in your heart. That to correct the problem, you had to attune yourself to your true purpose. Her husband turned from his right side onto his back. The singing resumed.

“Bon hiver,” she whispered.

She touched his shoulder. “Are you cold? I can’t sleep.”

“Hmmm.”

“Tonight is like Alaska. Do you remember? When we stayed in the cabin?” She pushed his shin with her toe. He grunted in reply.

She turned onto her back and stared into darkness. She heard the cat’s footpads land on the hardwood floor. She rested her eyes in the dark empty space between the rafters. Every few moments, when his cell phone blinked, she could barely make out their rough-hewn edges, the way faint stars appear brighter when you look just past them.

“Where is your favorite place we’ve ever visited? Let’s talk about our top five favorites. Let’s whisper though because the baby just fell back to sleep. Can we do that? I can’t sleep. It will help me relax and take my mind off the fact I can’t sleep. We can switch. You say one, I’ll say one. And you have to say why you liked it. Will you do it? It’s that or tickle my arm. If you really want to go back to sleep, just tickle my arm and I will fall back to sleep with you. Just let me know. I’ll start, since you’re just waking up. My favorite place was Juneau. I love how it was so small that you could walk from downtown straight up the mountain into wilderness. I like how all the buildings were brightly colored boxes. I like the soup lady whose carrot ginger bisque cured my cold. I like how the streets were silent at night, how at night it was dark and silent. I like how bears roamed around downtown. I like the bush plane pilots with their rubber boots and matted beards and long backs. I like the breakfast joint with the jar you just throw your money in. I like how they built a channel through town so the salmon could swim through. I like how, just before landing, the pilot said we were witnessing a rare moment in flying when he was making the sun come up for us. I like how it rained and rained and rained and when you thought the whole earth would wash away the sky would break open and the sun poured in. Your turn.”

He did not reply. She nudged him with her elbow.

“Juneau. Same reasons.” His face was in his pillow and he spoke from the corner of his mouth.

“No fair. A different place, and the reasons. Specific reasons.”

“Mmm hmm.” His eyes were closed.

“Are you asleep?” She gently slugged him in the shoulder.

“I was.” He rubbed his eyes, propped himself up on the pillow, and switched on the light.

“The Brownstone.”

“Any place we’ve visited, not where we used to live.”

“Do you want me to play or no?”

“Fine.” She feigned a sigh.

He propped himself up on his elbow and rubbed his temples with his thumb and forefinger. “I liked that it took me ten minutes to walk to work, five by bike. I liked how you could turn on the furnace and it would heat up immediately. I liked the squeezebox musician on the corner with the tattoos all over his back and the bone piercings in his ears.”

She was silent.

“What. Is that enough?”

“Sorry. I’m listening. It’s just that… I was just remembering. Remember how I caught all those rock fish from the kayak? One after another. I loved how you could just throw in the line and pull them out.”

He rolled onto his stomach and put the pillow over his head.

“And then you… and then…” She broke into a muffled chuckle. It was the kind that would evolve into an extended series of rolling belly laughter. His eyes were closed.

“Then you got all tangled in the line—” She was shaking the bed with her laughter. She held her mouth with her whole hand. The baby whimpered and she put him back on her breast.

He sat up on his elbow and rubbed his eyes. “I almost caught one. You weakened the line with your compulsive casting.”

She turned her head into the pillow and continued to laugh. He stared at her dark silhouette until her convulsing slowed and she drew her head up with one extravagant sigh.

“I’m glad you still find such pleasure in laughing at my expense.” He cupped his hand over the baby’s warm head. The hair was thin and soft. They were silent a moment, the three of them.

Then: “Do you think he looks like me?”

She looked up at him through the darkness. “Of course he does. Just add facial hair, he’s a little you.”

“People always say he looks like you. I’ve never once heard anyone say he looks like me.”

“Even strangers say he looks like a perfect combination of both of us. And your mother, she said he looked just like you when you were a baby.”

“That’s what every mother says. She was being nostalgic.”

She glanced down at the baby. His breathing was deep and even. She could faintly glimpse the soft highlights of his closed eyelids, like blue crescent moons.

“He looks like you now.”

“Asleep. In the dark.”

She laughed again, and the bed shook gently. She glanced down at the baby. His breathing was deep and even. The soft highlights of his closed eyelids looked like blue crescent moons.

“I’m going to put the baby back upstairs.”

“Good idea.”

She cradled the baby in one arm and picked up her mug from the side table. “Do you want some tea?” she asked. “I’m going to make some. Really I’m just going to heat this up from last night. But I’ll make you some new. Do you want any? Chamomile?”

“Sure.”

~

When she returned with the tea, he had fallen asleep sitting up, the lamp still on. She set the teas on the side table and considered, for a moment, waking him. But it was late. He had clients to meet in the morning. Maybe she could sleep. She removed the pillow from behind his back, nestled against his body, and pulled the covers around them.

She could not sleep. She slid out of bed, careful not to lift the covers in a way that would let too much air in. She looked at her husband’s sleeping body. She envied his ability to sleep deeply. She watched him as he slept. His eyelids were smooth as glacial riverstones, with hues of grey-blue, blue-violet, green-grey, and sand. He looked younger as he slept. Like the baby, she believed, even with the beard and its new gray.

She put on her robe and sheepskin slippers and walked into the kitchen carrying her tea. She opened the microwave, set the mug inside, and closed it. She pressed a button. The microwave hummed. She pulled open the door before it beeped. She held the mug under her chin so she could feel the warm, moist steam on her face. She walked to the French doors and pushed aside the curtains. Silver light spilled around her feet.

The snow was falling fast. She watched it fall, covering everything.

She had once read that the Inuit have more than eighty words for snow. She wished she knew them. The snowflakes transformed from fast, diagonal streaks, to wet, plunging spheres, to fluffy, whimsical drifts.  The last ones, tinier than flecks of sand, shimmered in the moonlight as they spiraled down.

The snow stopped. Her tea was cold. The back yard stretched out between the house and forest like a sheet of glass. She could not recall having ever seen a snow-covered field in the full moon. Not even in Alaska. It was something she wanted to see. She set her tea on the table and reached for the doorknob. She unlocked the doorknob, then the bolt. The doorknob would not turn. She turned and pushed. She pushed harder, leaned her whole body into the cold glass. The wood frame creaked against her weight. She stepped back. Her heart pounded and a strange heat rose up from her core, flared through her shoulders and face. She flung her body against the door. The jolt of the cold glass threw her back. Hot tears welled in her eyes and she beat the glass with her bare fists.

No one woke.

The intensity of her anger shocked her. Anger, she learned in her Buddhism class, was the mask of fear. The snow stopped.

She smoothed her hair and robe and walked to the window. She looked across the snow-covered field. The moon hung like a bare bulb. Stark beams shone through the trees, like flashes of lightening frozen in time. Crooked, skeletal branches cast black shadows that cracked the snowfield into thousands of shards, like the shattered windshield of a wrecked car held together by the pressure of its frame. That with the slightest jolt, would fall to pieces.

It was not what she imagined it would be. She could not, now, imagine it differently.