Thaw Excerpt 


Dur­ing a blind­ing bliz­zard on Christ­mas Eve in 1898, a young woman heavy with child pushed her way down a snow ­cov­ered lane. Her hus­band trudged along beside her, his head bowed against the shards of ice cut­ting into his face. Both wore long steely ­grey woollen coats, and the woman had a black scarf tied over a mound of gin­ger hair that was braided and pinned at the nape of her neck. They were lost and had been wan­der­ing for two hours. And now, the woman’s mit­tened hands quiv­ered uncon­trol­lably as she traced a peel­ing white picket fence that could have been any one of a dozen.

“Ain’t never seen nothin’ like this in all me years, maid,” the hus­band hollered, wind shav­ing away his words. “Come up like crazy. Can’t see the nose in front of me face. Should’ve stayed to Mudder’s.”

At once the woman stopped, and leaned her full weight against the fence. Her eyes were glossy with fear and rapid blinks scat­tered the snowflakes that were set­tling on her lashes. With­out speak­ing, she gripped her husband’s wrists, and brought his palms to her abdomen, hard and smooth like a mas­sive beach rock. She dreaded to let go of him, for she knew if he took a step back­wards, just one sin­gle step, the swirling storm would swal­low him and she would be alone.

Crouch­ing against the fence, she reached up under her skirts with one hand, and tugged down her long under­clothes. Tight bands of heat seized her abdomen as she screamed her agony out into the howl­ing sheets of snow. Her hus­band inched back­wards to remove his coat, and she shrieked again, clawed for him, knocked away his fur hat, and clutched his red­dened ears.

“Ye got hold to me, maid,” he cried in pain. “Now let me be, for the love of God.”

He pushed his coat under­neath her, blan­ket­ing the drift of snow where she lay. Reach­ing behind her, she grabbed the fence. As she birthed the baby, she tore away the two wooden slats she had been hold­ing. Her hus­band plucked a crimped pin from her hair, clamped the slip­pery cord with three swift twists, and sev­ered the con­nec­tion with his shiny pocket knife. Then, he bun­dled the cry­ing child in his fisherman’s knit sweater and tucked it inside his soiled coat, while his wife squat to dis­charge the afterbirth.

“C’mon, maid. Lest the wee one catches her death.”

“Her?” The woman’s heart swelled inside her chest.

“Yes,” he said. “Beau­ti­ful hazel eyes, she got. Right like her mudder.”

The woman stood slowly, her knees like the tide. She pointed to the pla­centa, a bloody, gelati­nous mound that steamed next to her snow angel impres­sion, and said, “We can’t go leavin’ that.”

“Don’t be so fool­ish, me duck.”

“We got to bury it.” The woman wavered as black­ness pressed in around her eyes and she rolled her palms over the sharp points on the pick­ets to steady her­self. “Where we lives. The lilac tree. Beside our window.”

“What? In this kind of storm?”

“Keep it,” she said. “’Til the earth softens.”

Her husband’s head was bare as his hat had scam­pered away, and the wind whipped his white shirt into a flag. “Maid…” he said, shak­ing his head.

Then, in a brief moment of silence when the bliz­zard inhaled, sheep bleated some­where off in the distance.

“I knows where we’re to,” he yelped. “Heav­enly Fad­der has shown us the way. ’Tis good fortune.”

“’Tis?” she asked as she began to weep. “But. But if we leaves it, she’ll go astray. Won’t never know where her home is to. Where she belongs.”

The hus­band tugged at his wife’s arm and she con­ceded. She was too weak to per­sist. As they pressed onwards through the bliz­zard, the wind grew weary and the night calmed. The woman stole rapid breaths through damp mit­tens that were pressed over her dead­ened nose. Sur­round­ing her, the air was bliss­fully aglow as moon­light bounced off every fat flake. Might be a cer­tain beauty to it, she imag­ined, if only she could step aside, some­how man­age to dis­tance her­self and get a decent look. Then again, she pon­dered as she stopped to rest just out­side her salt­box home, the beauty itself might only reside inside this fleet­ing blindness.

Within moments, three short­haired dogs, feral and ema­ci­ated, hap­pened upon the warm pla­centa. They tore it apart with throaty growls, gulped down every bite through bloody muz­zles, and licked the soiled snow clean. Bel­lies sati­ated, they frol­icked and danced, rolled around in the drifts, and finally curled into tight balls to sleep. They never whim­pered once as the tem­per­a­ture dropped and ice crys­tals cloaked their bodies.

The morn­ing after the storm, a farmer walk­ing his prop­erty line noticed the bro­ken fence and the dead dogs. He ham­mered the two slats back in place, then loaded the dogs into old flour sacks, and dragged them to the edge of the cliff. With a swing of his strong arm, he tossed them in a great arc up and out towards the fam­ished sea.