The first time I remember learning about a tragic death – I was a child, possibly eight, and my grandmother told me about how her uncle died.
Until this story, death was real, but Jesus had us covered, so it was okay. Besides, most people died in their hospital beds, which was good. We didn’t really go to hospitals. Bad guys on TV got shot, but then, they got what they deserved. I’m sorry, but you cash your chips.
However, my grandmother’s uncle – this nameless, faceless young or middle aged man, let’s call him Andrew – he didn’t die in a hospital bed, and he wasn’t a bad guy, and no one murdered him.
They lived in rural New York – black dirt good for growing onions, farm country, hills and valleys where it’s hard to see straight lines and Washington Irving would feel right at home.
Andrew was a young man. I guess. I think. I don’t remember, and no one can tell me. So. let’s say he was twenty one, and he worked for the Rural Power Authority. They finally got power to all the farms due to Roosevelt, that socialist, but God Bless the New Deal, anyway.
Snow storms in New York. No one needs a picture painted. Unless you’re a little girl in Alabama, sitting on rough carpet, making your horse figurines graze on brown shag as your grandmother tells you stories.
The snow was huge. Monster snow. On the ground the surface of it was ice-crusted, and it blew into drifts taller than the doorway. People wore tennis rackets on their feet. Those are called snow shoes. They wore them just to walk in it. To keep from sinking.
The cold broke glass fuses. Ice coated the power lines and snapped them. Or a tree cried out and tumbled, taking a utility pole with her.
The power went out.
Sister and I were born in such a winter, in a snowstorm at the farm. I was fine but my twin was a runt – like a skinned rabbit – small and sickly and so cold they had to put her in a shoe box before the wood stove – a homemade incubator.
Because we were twins, they gave us rhyming names: Laura and Flora. But everyone called Flora “Midge” because she was so small.
That’s your Great Aunt Midge.
But the snow, the snow that night – it came with banshee winds, banked and bucketing drifts – like an Antarctic landscape but with trees and narrow, twisting, shushing ski-slope roads up and down the hills.
Uncle Andrew worked for the rural power authority. Imagine him, child. No, he’s not wearing a newsboy cap. No, he’s not wearing knickers. He’s wearing a long fur coat – black as Astor’s hat, black as his hair, it looks like his hair has grown down to cover him, like a caveman or an animal, and he’s got so many layers on he looks forty pounds heavier. The worst of the storm is over, and the cold is so crisp you feel it could crystalize the moisture in your lungs as you breathe. Uncle Andrew has a job to do. He has to go out, in the snowshoes, in the coat and matching hat, and he must follow the power lines to find the breaks.
They called it “walking the lines.”
Uncle Andrew said goodbye to us. I was his favorite. He twisted a lock of my hair, dark like his, around his finger and tugged it, saying “Stay awake until I get back, Laura.” Mother swatted him with her apron for that. She was the big sister, and he was incorrigible. But the job was good, even though it was cold. It was a job. It was the Depression.
Mother packed him a thermos of coffee and a bacon sandwich and urged him to stop if he needed. Father told him to watch his step in the drifts.
Andrew smiled and said, “Don’t worry.” And he walked out. The snow was bright in the late afternoon, as the sun broke through the clouds for just a moment. It blazed a path across the snow-packed farmyard, golden, like the path that Dorothy followed, a Technicolor bright thread in a world of white.
Thinking of Judy Garland, Andrew set off, placing each foot as if they were on separate rail road ties, the snowshoes his parallel carriages.
At first it was easy. The next farm wasn’t far. The lines led him there, clean as a nun’s conscience. Straight as an arrow. He knocked and accepted the Ferguson’s hospitality – a cup of coffee and a biscuit by their stove. Then he set off again, following the line forward. A black line, crusted with ice or snow, sagging in some places, broken in others. When he’d find a break, he’d take out the Authority map and mark the spot on the grid with an “X.”
He found half a dozen like this before dark. At the farms, he’d stop, warm himself by the stove. Clear the ice crusting his nose. Farmers started pouring brandy in his coffee. The last sent him out with a flask of moonshine. “To keep warm,” the square-handed man had said, slapping Andrew’s shoulder and squeezing, telegraphing Dutch fortitude.
Andrew thanked him, and pressed out into the darkening night. Liquid warmth weighted his belly. One last section to go, and he would be done. He walked the lines as the moon rose full and bright. The lines threw fine, curved shadows across the snow.
One last section to go, and the snow started to fall again. Just a dusting on top of the deep drifts. Just a light fall, church-whisper soft.
Andrew pressed on. The snow clung to his snowshoes in great iced blocks, freezing and refreezing on his boots. The big fur coat was heavy across his shoulders, less warm than weighty, dragging at him.
Following the lines which followed the rutted country road, he reached the part he’d been dreading; the creek, now frozen and hulking, spanned by a narrow bridge, and where the power lines and the road parted ways. The country road crossed the brook and twisted around a rock formation, weathered and crouched like Old Scratch himself, stubborn in perdition.
The lines crossed the creek and then slanted away from the road, crossed a small meadow, and sloped down the hill behind the rock formation. There the lines ran through a small glade and rejoined the road on the downward slope.
Andrew crossed the bridge, and set off across the meadow. Each step was a struggle as the drifts grew deeper. Blowing like a plow horse, Andrew slogged on, pausing only for swigs of burning moonshine.
The lines led into the trees. The going was easier, the glade creaking under the weight of the snow. It was darker, but still bright enough to see, the moonlight filtered and reflected all around. Every now and then, a bough shrugged, or snapped, and a showering thump of snow descended, knocking other branches, shaking needles loose, shedding snow like a bridegroom shedding his shirt. Popped buttons, dropped cufflinks, sudden naked limbs.
Andrew couldn’t tell when it happened. If he could have done that, he could have found his way back. But somehow, he lost sight of the line. Perhaps it had snapped under the ice. Fallen into a tree, then been covered by new snow, until the glade was as seemingly untouched by humans as a fairy tale forest. No sign of axe or wire, no power line, and no poles. The gentle snowfall had erased Andrew’s footprints behind him like birds eating breadcrumbs.
Andrew searched for the line. He walked steadily forward, using the moon to guide him. No pantywaist city slicker, he forged on. He drained the flask to slake his thirst and warm his innards.
Maybe he never even panicked.
When they found him, he was frozen. His eyes were ice. His lips blue, his skin rigid. The great fur coat was open. The snow that continued to fall covered him, almost all of him, his dark hat, his shoulders, his hands, child-curled on his chest. The road was twenty feet away. The next farm was a quarter mile from that.
And I want to ask now, and maybe I did ask then, “Did he lay down?”
Did Andrew choose to lay down in the snow, or had he simply failed to get up after falling? Did all that brandy take a different toll? I can’t ask now. There is no one left who knows the story.
I can’t ask my grandmother, lost in a snowbank of her own a decade ago, frost white sheets, pillows, and nurses’ uniforms. She watched the lines of the IV, as it dripped the not-enough morphine into the rutted track of her vein, and moaned, “How long is this going to take?”
I can’t ask my parents, gone now as well. The loss of them, a wrenching theft, torn away by howling winds, and we didn’t even know the storm had gathered.
So I wander, walking the lines. Trying to restore power. Hoping for the flickering filament of faint recognition. But there’s nothing to follow. The lines are not just down, not just tangled. The lines are gone. They disappeared in the obliterating fall – white speck upon white speck – devouring the landscape of my grandmother’s stories, my mother’s stories, my father’s stories. Snow drifts, swept into illogical and precarious places, shrouding everything.
I tell myself it doesn’t matter if I remember perfectly. I tell myself that specificity doesn’t matter. What matters is feeling. The stories fill up the gaps in me like water fills cells.
But the stories disappear. Their pages eaten by acid, flaking away into dust, a dry burning erasure, until it’s too late, and I’m left with a smattering of words and images, like ice pellets hitting the glass, pebbles that scatter and melt before I can see them. My memory becomes an imagining, knowing I’m doing it, questing about for the story, having only the feeling. I fill in the blank spaces. Not just of his story, but of mine. What happened to him, and where was I when she told me about it? And then my imagination stretches out beyond to the larger story – why did she tell me? Did I ask? Or was she feeling melancholy, remembering him, and wanted to give him extra life in me?
Did I remind her of him? Was she trying to warn me? Tucked inside during a mild Alabama winter, teaching me to be careful of blizzards. Don’t trust the snow. Don’t trust your own body. The warmth is false. You’re dying of the cold. Never trust the surface of things.
It only takes a moment. It only takes a single mistake. It only takes the one thing you couldn’t foresee.
My own little one, with your toys and your tangled hair, I wish you could stay here forever – in the circle of your loved ones. Where even loss is cushioned by the shelter of your elders around you. Stay here, in your feeling of security.
Once, when I was a child, my grandmother looked at me, and felt the same way.
Little one on the carpet before me, little girl with your toy horses, how I wish I could protect you. Here is a story, about the cold, about danger, and trying to do your job. About the night and the deceiving snow, and my uncle, your Great-great Uncle Andrew, who worked for the Rural Power Authority and who died in a snowstorm.
Ash Parsons is the author of YA novels The Falling Between Us and Still Waters (Penguin -Philomel). She is the winner of the PEN Phyllis Naylor Award and an Alabama State Council on the Arts literary fellowship. She has taught creative writing for Troy University’s ACCESS program and Media Studies for Auburn University. She lives in Alabama with her family.