The Way North
by Mary Stein, Jun 27, 2011
Route 305, the two-lane highway that led north to the cabin, stretched straight ahead in the twilight. The woods were feathered with snow, with the radio saying there was more to come. It was warm inside the car and I was making good time. I had told the others that I'd go ahead and open up the place. When they came up later in the week it would be ready for our time together-the kitchen in order, the pantry stocked, the rooms swept and dusted.
"Why would you want to go up by yourself, Erin? Wait for the rest of us," Brad had said. "It's a long drive."
For a lone woman? Though he hadn't actually said that.
"It's only a few hundred miles," I had said. "I'm used to the trip." It was in fact six hundred miles to the cabin, but where we live distances aren't so important. And now, on the road, I had already covered a couple hundred of those miles. The twilight deepened, and fat soft snowflakes plopped onto the windshield. I switched on the headlights. Just ahead of the car a bird flew across the road, its tail flashing white. The snow fell faster and the wipers swished hastily across the windshield.
Why weren't the headlights catching the snow in their beams? It was dark now or nearly so. I flicked the lever to test the high beam.
No light. Nothing. I stopped the car, leaving the motor running, and went outside to inspect. Both headlights were dark. Only the parking lights on either side of the car sent out buttons of yellow light.
It was more than fifty miles back to the nearest gas station, another twenty or so to the next one north. If I waited till someone came, it could be a very long wait. Cell phones didn't work up there. I got back in the car and edged it forward. The snow had let up, and I could see the ditches on either side of the road. The wind sweeping across the pavement cleared off snow here and there to reveal the white stripe running down the middle of the blacktop. There was barely enough light to see that.
Stay warm, I told myself. Go slow. You'll be all right as long as you can see the dividing strip. There's extra gas in the trunk. Then there came a shock of black, an abyss of darkness with all signs wiped out. Then the feeble return of the visible-the strip of paint, the hillock of brambly snow at the road's edge. And then darkness again, and the tense search for a sign.
Suddenly the tires scraped over gravel. The car hovered at the edge of the ditch. I slammed on the brakes, swerved back onto the blacktop, whipping the steering wheel in helpless violence that almost took the car off the road again. I turned off the motor then, and waited in the dark, my nerves firing.
Then I remembered the flashlight.
It was there, in the glove compartment; I pressed the switch and a strong beam flared out. If I rolled down the window, held the flashlight outside, and kept the light trained on the middle stripe, I'd be able go ahead. Ten miles an hour in the darkness was too fast, and I cut it to five. Through the open window the cold seared my face, and my left hand in its glove grew numb holding the flashlight outside the car. Then the light dropped out of my hand. I stopped the car, saw where the flashlight shone by the side of the road, picked it up, warmed my left hand till I could feel the fingers again, and went on. After that I stopped every little while to warm the hand: to stop and then go on again, I don't know how many times, till the light began to weaken.
When the flashlight fell out of my hand again, it happened not so much from numbness as from an unexpected bend in the road that jolted the light out of my grip. Gone. Nothing but darkness. Then a snow-veiled yellow glow appeared, and I saw that the flashlight had fallen into the ditch.
I got out of the car and sat down at the edge of the bank, feeling its steep side with the heels of my boots, then lowered myself into the ditch until icy water splashed up over my boots and seeped into my socks. The flashlight had caught on a stiffened weed two-thirds of the way down. I picked up the flashlight and put it on top of the embankment, away from the edge. Then I scrambled up and for a little while lay stretched out in the snow. The wind had stilled and I could hear my heart struggling against my ribs.
As I raised up from the snow, I saw a light off in the distance, winking between trees. It disappeared as I stood up, as if pointed toward the ground or shaded in some way so that the best angle for seeing it was from the ground itself or just as I turned my head up from the snow. But it was there, and by shifting my angle I could keep it in view.
I got back in the car and started the engine. The flashlight hinted at what looked like a driveway, with rutted tire tracks in the snow. As the car turned into the tracks, the light I had seen from the ditch burst into alert sentinel mode. At the end of the driveway was a small frame house.
The car trembled to a stop, and a man and a woman came out of the house, their bodies backlit by the fierce bulb. They seemed young, the woman no more than thirty, the man a little older. Haloed in the spotlight, the woman's face was warm with welcome, unlined and open. The man stood a little behind her, darker, more guarded. I explained my situation to them.
"You're welcome to stay with us till you can get going again," the woman said.
The man said, "I can look at those headlights in the morning."
"Come inside and get warm," the woman said. "It will be good for Garth and me to have a visitor."
I was shaking hard. Then the tears came and I couldn't stop crying.
"It's the blessed strain of meeting," she said. "We feel that ourselves, these long winters, when someone comes."
She sat me down in a big chair. The shaking subsided, and there were warm socks to put my feet into. She brought me a hot drink, milk with a bolstering of brandy, that went down in a calming way. I offered to help her with the meal she was preparing.
"Well, if you really want something to do," she said with a smile. I followed her into the kitchen with its old-fashioned iron stove and broad-winged table. She handed me a wooden wand with a hook at its end. "For the root cellar," she said, pointing to the outline of a trap door in the floor, with a recessed place for the hook to grab onto.
I inserted the hook and the door came up, then hinged back to rest on the floor. There was an opening-then wooden steps, the shock of cold, darkness feebly lit by the light from above, as I went down into a little room carved out of the earth beneath the house. Hanging from the joists was what I guessed to be a side of lamb; stacked above the dirt floor were rounds of cheese and jars of butter. There were things coming into life or waiting to renew it, like the mushrooms shouldering their way out of rich decay or the jars of seeds saved from their summer garden. There was the fermenting life of milk and cabbages and beets; mason jars of tomatoes and green beans, shelves of carrots and turnips, rutabagas and parsnips, a bin of apples: things that the two of them had planted and tended and harvested, preserved or killed.
Above me, the woman's long denim skirt passed beside the opening, and I remembered childhood fears of being trapped, when in my dreams the door had closed, leaving me in darkness. But the door stayed open, and I climbed up into the kitchen carrying what she had asked for, root vegetables and a round of cheese that looked a little riper and crustier than the others. She put me to work at a table near the stove with its simmering pot. I scrubbed the dirt off carrots and turnips and potatoes, then peeled them for the soup.
The sky had cleared. Through the kitchen window the moon shone halfway to full and there were stars above the dark trees. I opened the door to get a better view. The woman's husband was standing under the trees, his face lit by the kitchen lamp. I supposed that he'd finished his tasks for the day, had made sure the animals were safe, was taking a moment to relax. It would be like that when we were at the cabin-the men standing out in the dark, talking before dinner, having finished what needed doing. For a moment I imagined Brad standing there with him.
"Don't let out all the heat," she said.
I closed the door and went back to the stove and watched the carrots turn tender. Her husband came in and brought another chair to the table. She and I set out the soup pot and the bread and cheese, and we sat down to eat. I'd never tasted anything like that soup, except once when I was five and hungry and far from home, and there had been a hamburger of miraculous flavor. This soup had that same intensity.
After a while we talked. How long had they been living there, I wondered. The man said, "My family's been around long enough to learn how to make a go of it here." They'd been sheep ranchers for a few generations. For him there'd been college and a stint at an engineering job, and then the return to the land "after trying what's out there." By then he and May had met and married.
Her family, she said, had lived on the outskirts of a city in the southern part of the state; she'd been home-schooled. There was a touch of Bible and hymnbook in some of her phrases, and in his too, phrases like "the blessed strain of meeting."
She said, "It's rugged here in the winter. But Garth already knew the life--and I've been here now for a few years." I caught a flavor of rigor in her voice, and it struck me that if she were to speak of the "blood of the lamb" it would carry rich and specific meaning.
She passed the bread to me with a firmness and grace that carried into my own body, like music on its way up the scale. Once their hands touched the butter dish at the same time, and an aura-that's the best way I can put it-spread out from that.
She asked me about the cabin and the friends I had said I'd be meeting, and I mentioned how I wanted to get the place ready before they came. She nodded. "Sometimes Garth leaves me here on my own when he goes upland to mend sheepfolds, and I'm glad enough to have the place ready when he comes back."
Garth smiled. "And I get left behind to take care of things when she heads south to see her people." May's parents, who were aging, sometimes needed her for a few days.
After we had eaten, May led me upstairs to a loft that contained a bed and an oak chest. "The heat drifts up," she said, "so it'll be warm here for a while." After that, she indicated, there were the heaped-up comforters at the end of the bed. "They're stuffed with feathers from the birds we've plucked," she said. I remembered seeing feathers poking out of a sack in the root cellar.
I undressed, put on the nightgown I'd brought, turned out the light and went to the window. Below, in the driveway, my car sat quietly beneath the moon and stars, beneath the silvery clouds speeding past above the trees. I sank into the bed and fell asleep.
The next morning was bright and clear. When I came into the kitchen, May was stirring oatmeal in a big pan. She leaned forward to hand me the bread basket and a pitcher of milk, and I found myself extending her easy movement all the way to the table. Garth came in and brought the chair for me again, and the sound of its careful setting down seemed to guide me into my place.
May brought the cereal in bright bowls and sat down with us. The two of them ate for a while in silence, and so did I, which is to say that I let topics of conversation float past me as my spoon made its way from the bowl, along with the smell and then the taste of the thick hot cereal. Garth said, "I'll work on your car after breakfast. Problem might be in the wiring. It's not likely that both headlights would burn out at once."
"One way or the other, I'll be able to go on," I said. "Even if the headlights don't work, I have the whole day to get to the cabin. And my friends will be there quite soon." Suddenly I ached at the prospect of moving alone through the tunnel of landscape as I pushed the car north. I reminded myself that I'd be carrying out what I'd set out to do. But that didn't make the ache go away.
Garth picked up the basket and offered the bread to May, and again the current of a shared life passed between them. This time it felt like a closed circuit: their life, not mine. They were here, moving through the day within each other's awareness, and I was already as good as driving north, alone in the car. I told myself that once my friends and I were at the cabin, working together, cooking and building and speaking together, our own communal energy would fill the place. I knew from experience that we would share a dependency that was a strength, not a weakness.
A dependency-the word took on an unfamiliar warmth. Why, I wondered, had I thought that heading off alone was so necessary? It struck me then as a kind of avidity. I'll call Brad, I thought. I'll let him know how different the trip feels now, how I've understood something.
My chair scraped back from the table. "May I use your phone?" I asked. "To call a friend?"
Brad answered on the first ring. "Erin? Are you all right? We've been taking turns calling the cabin since last night. Where are you?" I had worried them. I hadn't thought of that.
I told him about the headlights and the desperate inching forward in the cold and dark, and then finding Garth and May. He said, "Thank God you're with friends then."
I looked across the table, where the two of them sat quietly listening. Their presence, and their good will toward me, felt like food I was tasting for the first time. I had been going to say to Brad, "I see now that I could have waited for the rest of you." But something filled up in me, and the words that came out were different.
"Yes, I'm lucky to be here. Yes, my friends are good to me."
After a pause, Brad said, "Right." Then, "Erin, what are you going to do now?"
"Garth says he'll look at the car and see what's needed. I'll call you later and let you know how it goes," I promised.
"I'll tell the others," he said. "Take care."
We chatted a little longer, then said good-by. As I put the phone down, May was coming up from the root cellar. From her apron she unloaded apples, ripe and cold and firm. We sliced and ate them with the last of the bread.
After that the three of us went outside to have a look at the car. May and I checked under the hood-the plugs, the carburetor, the oil level, the belts, while Garth took a pair of pliers to some wiring and renewed a connection. The lights came on then.