The Driven Snow.
They were still youngsters that winter. They lost their baby sister before the first snowfall. Their mother laid the infant in a shallow trough beside the only other grave in the cove and she sang the lullaby she’d sung all her children to sleep with, which was as much as they had to offer of ceremony. The woman was deathly sick herself by then, coughing up clots of blood into her hands.
The ground was frozen solid when she died and even if their father had been well enough to shovel there was no digging a grave for her. He and Evered shifted the covering of reeds and alders away from the overturned boat and hauled it down to the landwash before they carried the corpse from the house. They set it in the boat along with half a dozen stones scavenged along the shore. Their father slumped against the gunwale to catch his breath.
“Will I come out with you?” Evered asked.
He shook his head. “You stay with your sister,” he said.
The two youngsters watched him row away from shore and out beyond the shoal water with his dead wife. They saw him leaning below the gunwales for what seemed a long time, his head and shoulders bobbing up now and then. He was working at something awkward and unpleasant it seemed though neither could guess what it was. They watched him wrestling the weight of the corpse with his back to the shore. He was far enough off they couldn’t see that their mother was naked when she was tipped into the black of the winter ocean.
Their father tried to hand the clothes to his daughter when he rowed in but Ada held her hands behind her back and shook her head fiercely.
“You’ll have need of these,” their father said. “Now the once.”
Evered took them, folding the limp fabric against his stomach.
The sour smell of a long illness and of his mother which he couldn’t separate in his head. “I’ll set them by for her,” he said.
Their father nodded. He was too exhausted to climb from the boat and he sat there a long while. A day of snow had blown in across the bay and it turned the hair of his bowed head white as they waited.
Their father died in his bed before the new year.
Without speaking of it they acted as if he was only asleep and they left him lying there for the better part of a week. Hoping he might wake up coughing in the middle of the night, complaining about the cold or asking after a drink of water. During the day they dawdled about in the store and spent as much time outside as they could stand, cleaving and stacking wood or hauling buckets of water from the brook, picking along the landwash for gull feathers and mussel shells and wish rocks to add to Ada’s collection. Inside they tended the fireplace and drank their bare-legged tea and spoke in whispers so as not to disturb the man.
On the fifth night of the vigil Ada woke from a dream of her parents. They were standing back on, holding hands and looking at her over their shoulders. Her mother was naked and soaking wet, her hair streaming water.
“What is it you’re bawling over, Sister?” Evered asked.
“He can’t stay,” she whispered.
“Don’t be talking foolishness.”
“He can’t stay there like that, Brother.”
And he set to bawling with her then, the two helpless youngsters holding on to one another in the pitch.
Before it was properly light he pulled back the one ragged blanket and hauled his father’s body to the floor. The heels smacking like mallets against the frozen ground. His sister moved to pick up her father’s legs but Evered wouldn’t allow it.
The man of the house suddenly. “You sit there,” he said. “Until I gets back.”
He gripped the shoulders of his father’s shirt. He expected it to feel like hauling a seine of fish but there was a rigidness to the corpse that made it surprisingly easy to drag through the doorway.
Only once on the way down to the water was he forced to stop to catch his breath and shake the numbness from his hands.
He rowed out to the deeps beyond the shoal grounds, as close to the same spot as he could guess judging by his distance from the shore. Their parents might be together down there was his thought or within sight of one another at least, though he knew nothing below the ocean surface sat still for long. He tried to strip off the man’s clothes for practical reasons but his father’s eyes were half-open and he lost his nerve for meddling.
Before pushing off the beach he’d gathered a length of old netting and enough stones to keep the body under and he tied that improvised anchor around his father’s waist. The day was still and cold, the ocean flat calm. He did not want to watch once the body slapped into the water and the rocks were hefted over the gunwale to take it down. But he couldn’t make himself look away from that descent until long after his father had passed out of sight and into the black.
He stared out at the spot where the man sank from view as he rowed in through the skerries. His teeth chattering helplessly, his mind swimming. Even after the keel brought up in the shallows he kept rowing at the water like a headless chicken strutting around the chopping block. He didn’t stop until Ada called his name behind him.
“I told you to wait where you was till I come back,” he said, trying to set the oars and find his feet.
“I was watching for you heading in,” she said.
He stumbled as he climbed over the gunwale, his face like chalk. “I needs to lie down for a bit,” he said.
Ada did her best to haul the boat out of reach of the tide, calling after her brother as he staggered up the path to the tilt. By the time she came into the room he was already asleep in their bed. He slept so long and in such a stillness that Ada considered he might have died on her as well. She sat across the room until dark and then climbed into her parents’ bed where she lay whispering to her dead sister to keep herself company.
Evered didn’t wake until late the following morning. He sat bolt upright in the bed and seemed not to know where he was before he caught sight of her. She stared at him a long time without speaking.
“What is it, Sister?” he said.
She pointed then and he reached up to touch his crown.
“Your hair,” she said.
She thought of their father’s bowed head in the boat after he had committed their mother to the ocean’s deep, the drift that had settled on it like a veil.
“What about me hair?”
“It’s gone all white,” she said.
As the driven snow, their mother would have said of it.
They were left together in the cove then with its dirt-floored stud tilt, with its garden of root vegetables and its scatter of outbuildings, with its looming circle of hills and rattling brook and its view of the ocean’s grey expanse beyond the harbor skerries. The cove was the heart and sum of all creation in their eyes and they were alone there with the little knowledge of the world passed on haphazard and gleaned by chance.
—The ocean and the firmament and the sum of God’s stars were created in seven days.
—Sun hounds prophesy coarse weather.
—The death of a horse is the life of a crow.
—You were never to sleep before the fire was doused.
—The winter’s flour and salt pork had to last till the first seals came in on the ice in March month.
—The dead reside in heaven and heaven sits among the stars.
—Nothing below the ocean’s surface lies still.
—Idleness is the root of all troubles.
—Their baby sister died an innocent and sits at God’s right hand and hears their prayers.
—Any creature on the earth or in the sea could be killed and eaten.
—A body must bear what can’t be helped.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael Crummey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.