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SHORT STORY

A Fire In Winter

A Short Story by Clifford Garstang

Trace pulls the icy cap from his head, wraps it around his hand, and breaks the window. He clears the remaining shards of glass, reaches inside, twists the lock on the knob and pushes into the house. He’s never done anything like this before, but what choice does he have in weather like this? He feels his way through the hallway, the only light a dim reflection from the snow-covered lawn. His hand touches a switch, but nothing happens. The house is cold and dank, but at least he’s finally out of the wind and blowing snow.

His eyes adjust and now he can see more. There’s a mirror in the entry, a dark hall leading to the left, the outline of a dining table and the emptiness of tall windows. Behind him a gust whistles through the broken pane in the door.

He takes the hallway to the right and stumbles over a chair, banging his knee on the floor as he falls. He flicks his lighter and steps further into the house. He comes to a room occupied only by a couch. He’s suddenly tired. So very tired. He curls up, buries his head in the cushions, and sleeps.

He was lucky to find the house. When his mom’s Grand Prix slid off the highway in heavy snow, pinning the door against a thick maple and sending a streaking crack across the windshield, he thought he might be dead. He’d been drinking, the tallboy of Bud flying from his hand as he tried to rein in the skid. He was in one piece, though, as far as he could tell. Nothing broken. He turned the key to restart the car, as if he might be able to drive out of his predicament, but the engine only shrieked and wouldn’t start. He crawled across the seat to the passenger door, stumbled out, his feet slipping and sinking in the snow. There would be cars, he thought, someone would stop to help. But no one came, and the snow continued to fall.

He saw lights through the trees. Was it a house? Was it far? He moved into the woods, took a few steps and the lights disappeared. He kept on, and the lights came into view and faded again, and then they were gone. But he found the edge of the woods, a snowy lawn, an overgrown hedge, and the shadow of an enormous, dark house.

In the morning, hazy light filters into the room, and now he can see details. There is a rug over hardwood floors, faded, and worn in spots. The ceiling in this room is high and the walls are pale yellow, with streaks that might be dirt, or shadows. And there are pictures, paintings or prints he isn’t yet sure which, in gilt frames that catch the dim light.

He finds a bathroom, surprised to have water, although what comes out of the tap is murky and frigid. He lets it run, hoping for warmth, but if anything the water seems to get colder. He splashes his face and wipes his hands on his jeans, still damp from the snow. There’s a kitchen off the dining room, but the cupboards are empty. He’s not hungry yet, but he will be.

***

“Where are you going?” Claudia shouted from her parents’ porch.

He was half way to the car, surprised by how cold it had become. He didn’t want to stop to answer her.

“Home,” Trace said, fumbling with the keys. “This was a mistake.”

“Daddy didn’t mean it, honey.”

“Of course he meant it, Claude.”

“You’re just going to leave me here?”

“Will you come?”

“You know I can’t. They’re my parents. Please come back inside. We’ll talk to him together. It’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

Trace slammed the car door shut, muffling her pleading voice.

***

Now it’s even colder and the snow has started again. The wind is fierce and the windows rattle. He wonders if the car has been found, if anyone knows what happened, if Claudia is looking for him. The snow is heavy. Even if he wanted to leave, he couldn’t. There’s no cell service. If he wanted to call her, he couldn’t.

He explores the house. It’s something to do, it helps him keep warm. It’s huge. There are bedrooms upstairs, six or more, all empty. He finds the library downstairs. He’s never been in a house with a library like this, all four walls lined floor to ceiling with filled shelves. He pulls out a book. The Earth Speaks to Bryan. It’s a thin book, musty, the pages brittle and yellow. He reads a few pages, finds that the book is from 1925, an argument about evolution and the Scopes trial. He’s heard of the trial, he thinks, but isn’t sure what it was about, and isn’t sure about evolution, either, which he thought was a new idea. He didn’t know it had been around so long. He pulls out another book, this one even older, from 1906, News from Nowhere. And another, older still, from 1873. Why are they here? What is this place?

Now he’s hungry and needs to find something to eat. He re-checks the kitchen. He might need to eat the books, a bookworm, he thinks, and laughs, and wonders how bad it would have to get for him to really do that. He’s hungry, and he’s cold.

He’s back on the sofa, with a copy of Gone with the Wind he’s pulled from the library. He’s heard of this one, but thought it was a movie. He isn’t sure what it’s about. He opens it and reads the first page. The wind howls—he laughs again, thinking about the wind and the title of the book—and the house shudders. He looks up from the book and notices the fireplace.

***

All the way from DC Claudia had seemed tense. She had something to say, he knew that’s what it meant when she chewed her lip like that, formulating her argument, hunting for the words.

“Spit it out, Claudia. Or are you going to make me guess again.” She did that sometimes, testing his ability to read her, to determine if they were suited for each other despite their different backgrounds. He laughed and took his eyes off the swirling snow to see if she smiled, if his laughter had loosened her up at all. A gust of wind pulled his gaze back to the road.

“My parents,” she said and stopped.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw that she had looked away, was staring out the side window at the sugar-dusted fields.

“Your parents,” he said. “What about your parents?”

She settled a hand on his leg. “They don’t know.”

“Which part don’t they know? That we’re getting married? Or that I’m white?”

“They don’t know,” she said again.

***

It’s dark again, the winter day ending early. The cold is painful now, his fingers numb. The thought of nibbling on a book occurs to him again, not quite as funny this time, and he sees the fireplace once more. He can’t eat the books, but maybe they’ll burn. He opens the book in his hands—it’s dry and brittle—and sets it in the fireplace grate. He reaches inside and opens the flue with a yank. He holds his lighter to a page that flutters in the draft and the flame consumes the page, then engulfs the rest. He rubs his hands before the fire and for a moment he is warm. He runs to the library and grabs more books, a Jack London, a Hemingway. He opens them both and sets them on the fire.

He remembers something from high school days, about book burning and censorship. His own mother had joined a protest at his school, something she didn’t think he should be allowed to read. He doesn’t even remember what it was now, or what harm she thought it would do. He grabs another book: The Klansman. Inside there’s a drawing of a guy wearing a white robe and a pointy hat. This one he understands. He drops it into the fire.

It was Trace’s idea to make the trip. Claudia had finally agreed to marry him, and he wanted to meet her parents, who lived in Southwestern Virginia. She resisted. They couldn’t afford the trip, she said, her car would never make it, they both had exams, the weather was so unpredictable at that time of year, her parents worked and were always busy with this and that. But it was only gas, they had enough money for that, and his mother would lend him her car. After all, she was as hard-nosed as they came and even she had come around, eventually, and liked the idea once she got used to it. And she loved Claude.

“I bet they’re dying to meet the man in your life. Aren’t they? Their future son-in-law?”

She didn’t answer. He wanted to know why. And finally she gave in.

***

He finds an encyclopedia in the library. It has 21 volumes. It’s old, but newer than the other books and the pages are thicker; it doesn’t burn as readily, which he realizes is a good thing for his purposes. It also doesn’t throw off as much heat, but it will last longer. The pages blacken and curl before they sprout yellow flames, and he can almost read them while they burn, “Archaeology is the study of . . .” He stacks the whole set on the hearth, like logs.

He has to eat something and wishes he’d paid more attention when he was a cub scout. Did they even talk about survival back then, did they have to identify berries and nuts? He doesn’t want to go outside, but there’s no choice.

He pulls the hat over his ears, tugs his jacket tight, and braves the wind. There’s at least a foot of snow, drifting across the lawn, and he isn’t sure what he might find, or where to look. But there has to be something. Briefly, he considers finding the road, a store, a passing car, getting to a phone and calling Claudia’s house, asking for help even if he has to talk to her father. But even if that made sense in this weather, he can’t do it. He’s making a point, although he’s no longer sure what it is.

The woods behind the house hold promise. The snow isn’t as deep here, but he still doesn’t see anything edible. He tramps around between the trees. He doesn’t see them, but feels something hard and round under his feet. He kicks the snow away and finds brown, golf-ball-sized nuts. Walnuts, he guesses, but isn’t sure. He gathers a dozen and fills his pockets. How many is enough? He isn’t sure of that either. And what else does he need? What else can he eat?

Back in the house he tries to open the nuts. He breaks the husk, and his fingers darken, black, even darker than Claudia’s fingers, which are pale, coffee-with-milk. The tannin bites at his nose, a smell of the woods. He’s left with a hard shell, impenetrable.

Trace saw Claudia in a blues club in Adams Morgan and recognized her from one of his classes at GW. He watched her come in, his eyes drawn to her tight, black curls and tight, black jeans, the graceful rhythm of her step, dancing across the room instead of walking. He followed her to the bar and paid for her beer.

She wouldn’t return his calls, but he persisted. She wouldn’t go out with him, but he kept asking. She wouldn’t come up to his place, and when she finally relented, she left after one drink. When she came back a week later, and they tumbled into bed, she wouldn’t stay. For months he begged her to move in. Eventually she did.

The encyclopedia keeps burning, but doesn’t do enough to combat the cold. He pulls books from the shelves at random: Three Men in a Boat, from 1889, is ashes in minutes; The Story of the Typewriter, from 1923, lasts a bit longer.

His stomach aches from hunger. He sits in front of the fire and sets one of the walnuts on the stone hearth, taking aim with Volume X-Z of the encyclopedia. He raises the book over his head and slams it onto the nut, which is unharmed by the blow. He examines the book, his fingers brushing over the dent in its cover. He finds an old atlas and slams the nut again, with the same result. He considers pulling a plank from the bookshelf in the library, but the shelves are built-in, immovable. He searches the kitchen, pulling out drawer after drawer, hoping for a hammer, or anything. But there’s nothing, and then he remembers seeing rocks bordering the garden just outside the door. He retrieves one.

He settles another book on the fire and attacks a nut with the stone. The first blow does nothing, but he hears the nut crack on the second try. He brings the rock down again and shards fly across the room. He retrieves the fragments and digs out the meat of the nut, a bitter, hard kernel between his teeth. He eats all he can find and then it’s gone, hardly worth the trouble, but it’s something. He attacks another and another and he eats all the walnuts, then goes out where he found them and gets some more and eats those.

He decides that red books burn better than others, so he grabs an arm load, another London, a Faulkner, a Joyce, and throws them on the fire.

The snow had started while they were still on I-81 with another couple of hours to go before they reached Claudia’s parents’ house. Trace now understood from her silence that her parents didn’t know she was engaged and, more to the point, didn’t know that her boyfriend was white. So there was going to be some awkwardness to start with, maybe. But they’d get over it, surely? She loved him, so why wouldn’t they?

“There’s a reason you didn’t tell them, isn’t there?” he said. Despite the snow, the road was in good shape and traffic was moving fast. His mom’s car had all kinds of power and he enjoyed driving it through the mountains.

“All right,” she said. “Here it is. My father has a problem with whites. He’s from a different time and place. He came up from Georgia as a boy. He remembers how it was.”

“I get that it was bad,” Trace said. “But it’s not like that anymore, is it? Plus, this is me, not some Georgia cracker.”

“There’s more, though.”

Trace took his eyes off the road for a second to look at her and felt the Grand Prix swerve into the left lane. He slowed and steered back. “Tell me.”

“Okay.” She took a deep breath. “It’s my mother. When I was about five—we lived near Blacksburg then—she was raped. By a white man. My father can’t forgive something like that.”

He sleeps fitfully. The wind howls, but the snow has stopped. He can see the moon through the bare windows, its reflected light bright on the snow. In the morning, the sky is clear. His stomach aches, but he no longer feels hungry. This can’t go on much longer, though. He has to leave. He tosses the last of the encyclopedia volumes on the fire, but glowing ash leaps from the grate and drifts up, coming to rest on the rug. He envisions the rug bursting into flames, taking the house with it, and he imagines how warm he’d be in the center of the fire, with nothing left to worry about. He steps on the ash, extinguishing the flame before it begins.

They finally arrived at the house in mid-afternoon, a white-clapboard cottage on a quiet road. You can tell a lot about people from how they keep their yard, Trace thought. The Crawfords’ yard was orderly, with trimmed bushes along the driveway, a flower bed in front of the house, like a moat. The mother’s doing? Or the father? They cared what the neighbors thought. They liked things just so.

The snow was heavier now, beginning to stick, settling on the Grand Prix as they climbed out and headed to the door. Claudia’s mother, a petite woman wearing jeans and a red sweater, her hair short like Claudia’s, greeted her with a tight hug, but her eyes were on Trace. The father, tall with a barrel chest, stood behind his wife, glowering at Trace.

“Who is that?” he said gruffly.

“Come inside, Trace, it’s freezing out here,” Claudia said. “Daddy, this is Trace.”

Trace stepped up to the door, Claudia and her mother having moved further inside, but her father blocked the way.

“I don’t care who he is, little girl. He’s not welcome in my house.”

“Daddy, please. Let me explain. Trace, get in here.”

But the man was so large, he filled the doorway, and Trace couldn’t enter.

“Howard, let the man in,” the mother said.

He took a step back, as if relenting, and Trace moved forward, eager to get out of the snow. When he had only one foot inside, Claudia’s father put both hands on Trace’s chest and shoved, sending Trace flying off the stoop.

“Boy, if I catch you sniffing around my daughter again I will kill your sorry white ass. Do you hear me?” From behind the door he pulled out a shotgun that he now aimed at Trace.

“Daddy!” Claudia screamed, as Trace scrambled off the lawn and back to the Grand Prix.

He has no idea where he is. When he left Claudia’s parents’ house, he just drove. He’d stopped at a convenience store where he got the beer, but from there he kept going, unable to judge direction in the snow. Now that the storm is over, he’ll have to go for help. But where?

As he pulls on his jacket and cap, he takes a last look around the house. He realizes how old it must be. He’s no judge of these things—growing up in DC, what does he know about big old country houses?—but he guesses it’s from before the Civil War. A plantation house, then, home to rich white people. Probably people who owned slaves.

High school feels like a long time ago now, but he remembers studying about slavery. He went to public school in DC and there were lots of black kids in his class. The teachers—mostly white, but there were black teachers, too—tiptoed around the subject. Instead of telling the students what to think about slavery, they let the kids talk it through. That was an eyeopener. He’d had no idea. Some of his own friends, teammates on the basketball team, descended from slaves, with stories they’d heard passed down from generation to generation. Horror stories. They’d read a book about it he remembered, Beloved. It wasn’t even that long ago.

No wonder Claudia’s father was angry. But it wasn’t Trace. It wasn’t even Trace’s ancestors, Irish immigrants who came later, after the war. But Trace gets it. Or, he supposes, he can’t really get it, but he doesn’t blame the man. And what happened to her mother? Man, that shouldn’t happen to anybody.

Trace trudges through the snow, away from the house. The road hasn’t been plowed yet, and stretches white and empty in both directions. Looking one way, he sees the Grand Prix, a snow-covered lump in a ditch, leaning against the leafless tree. The other way, back the way he came, is Claudia’s house and the convenience store. He’ll make his way to the store, call her. He’ll apologize for running. They’ll figure something out, some way to make it all right with her father. 

He looks back at the house, a stately mansion from this distance, not the rundown husk he knows it to be. The windows appear to be glowing yellow in the morning light. Is it a reflection of the sun, or something else?

 

<<END>>

Clifford Garstang is the author of the novel in stories WHAT THE ZHANG BOYS KNOW, winner of the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction, and a story collection, IN AN UNCHARTED COUNTRY, winner of the Maria Thomas Fiction Award. His novel, THE SHAMAN OF TURTLE VALLEY, will be published in May 2019. He is also the editor of the three-volume anthology series, EVERYWHERE STORIES: SHORT FICTION FROM A SMALL PLANET. His new story collection, HOUSE OF THE ANCIENTS AND OTHER STORIES will be published in 2020.



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