Across The White
The house was white. Behind it, and above it, the sky was flat and blue. The yard and the lake and the roof were covered with layers of snow and it was the time of the year when the festivities of Christmas and NewYear's were ended and before a person could see her way to Spring yet. An old woman supported herself with a walker and pushed the snow around with a snow scoop to form a jagged path.
Galandrielle ran out from the porch wearing a tank top and flannel shorts, her feet stuffed into her boots. "Nana!" she called out. "Supper's ready!" She had finished her graduate work a year ago now and was home to keep house and care for the old woman.
"I'm coming, dear. Coming," the old woman said.
Galandrielle opened her bare arms out wide and kicked at the snow and whistled as she went back to the house. The old woman tucked the snow scoop just inside the shed. With one hand against the shed she shook the clumped up snow and ice from her walker and went to the bleak white house, now grey in the owl-light. Galandrielle opened the door and the old woman lifted her walker over the step. "The walk looks good, Nana."
"Ah, thank you, little one." She sat on the bench in the foyer and began to un-lace her boot. The house was over-warm this year in her opinion. Gal and her friend Marey spent their
summer installing central heat of all things. Sometimes, years ago, when Gal was a baby, they'd light the fireplace for a few hours in the afternoon, but she had doubts about this central heating. She pulled the knot on the other boot.
Galandrielle put a basket of bread on the table and poured two glasses of milk
"I'm coming, dear. Coming."
Her name was Regine. Her hair had never been cut, not once. When she took it out of its twists and braids it hung down past her waist, it hid her face and shoulders and arms when she stooped over her walker, which she abandoned at the door with her boots. "Smells lovely," Regine said.
"Nana," Galandrielle said as she so often did, "do you want me to wash your hair tonight? Be a good night for it."
As Regine so often answered, "Well, don't mind if y'do."
Gal always wanted to trim it just a few inches. But Regine said, "It ain't never been cut. I still got the hair I started out with, which weren't much, but I'd like to keep it." She just let Gal comb it and put a little oil in it.
"They was five of em," Joe, Marey's father, said.
"They was all just beautiful," her mother Vickie said. They sat very close together, shoulder to shoulder, pleased to have the girls' rapt attention.
"And they was all like that, vain about their hair. Regine's the last of em."
"I thought they was six of em?" Vicki said
"Oh, well, maybe. May be. But Regine's the last of em. And they all had that hair. It was red, just like yours, Gal, and long and strong. I bet every single one of em still had her baby hair at the ends. Yup."
"But, Dad, which one is Gal from?"
"Oooh," they both said and shook their heads. "Can't say. Could be any one of em. Course you girls understand that Regine's a hundred if she's a day, so t'was your grandmother Fleur come first. Right, Vick?"
"Believe so. But I weren't around then. Fleur then Raney who was the wild one, then you, Gal."
"Them sisters just appeared one day, outta the blue my grandma always said. One day that house was empty, had been for years, then the next, a bunch of red-haired sisters calling themselves by Nadeau was there."
"Then," said Vicki, "they just started disappearing."
"Now, Vicki, they didn't just start disappearing. It was a lotta years later. After the first baby, Fleur, was born or come to them. However they got her. But once they started disappearing, they just started disappearing."
Galandrielle remembered Fleur as tall and quick and efficient. She zig-zagged about the house cleaning and cooking and nagging Gal about school and homework. Gal liked to follow her around in the afternoon and watch as she tackled her day. Once Fleur said, "How old are you today, Galandrielle?"
"I'm in the fourth grade. All my friends are nine or ten."
"I think you're eight."
That moment Fleur stopped. She stopped the rushing. She took long minutes to stand and watch out the window. She would look out across the lake calm and transfixed or quietly in the yard with her shovel in her hand as the eddies of snow whirled at her feet and the wind howled around the mountains. But the howl wasn't the hollow winter whistling sound. It was like a sweet and far away call. It made Galandrielle feel sad although the sound itself was not a sad one.
Fleur grew more and more dreamy as the winter progressed and the sound that ached Gal's heart so became louder and more insistent. "What is it, Fleur?" Gal asked one morning. Fleur stood fixed in the yard and stared out at the lake.
"My sisters," Fleur said in a whisper.
"Are you going?" Gal said.
It was cold that day and clear. The snow was dry and flew up with every breeze and moved into sloping drifts against houses and doors. In the afternoon the wind picked up and blew the snow into a blizzard violent enough that the superintendent kept the children in school until almost suppertime.
Galandrielle came home and found Regine alone. The evening was still and the moon was nearly invisible behind a cloud.
Vicki leaned in towards the girls. "I'll tell you the spookiest thing I ever seen was when I went snowmobiling on New Year's Eve with my brother Mikey. You was just a baby, Marey. Me and Mikey saw Eric Boileau up ahead with Raney behind him. She weren't wearing no hat and her hair was just flying out behind her like a flag and it would catch the moonlight like it was a big gold sheet or something.
"I says to Mikey, 'Let's catch up to them quick before they hit that thin ice up there.' Mikey raced after them a bit, but we couldn't catch up and we couldn't figure out how Eric made that beat up piece of tin he called a snowmobile go that fast. But they was flying. And straight for that thin ice.
"Mikey says to me, 'Raney's gotta know about that goddamn ice. She been snowshoeing all over this lake all winter.' Well, after a while all I could see of them was Raney's hair shining in the moonlight. Then it went dark. 'They went under!' I says to Mikey and he zoomed out toward that spot, stopping just short of where it got dangerous.
"We could see the hole where the snowmobile went under and the water, and we ran over calling their names Raney! Eric! But it weren't no use. We got off the machine and sorta skirted around the hole to see if we could see where they was trapped under the ice but we didn't see anything.
"Then a bizarre feeling come over me. I thought I heard a howl like the wind makes if you're standing in the right sort of place. But it wasn't that kind of noise, it was softer kind of. Then I thought I saw something like a light the color of Raney's hair only lighter and it went round in a whirlpool with some snow. But instead of dying down like those little whirlies of snow do, or picking up, it just moved on, quick. Quick as a bug towards the mountains."
Joe said, "It was the cold playing tricks on you. The cold and the moon."
"It was below zero that night I know that. And the sky was clear, every star clear as a diamond and the moon was so big, I thought it would swallow me up. But it weren't what I seen that made me feel odd. I had a bizarre feeling. I don't know girls, it was just the strangest feeling. Like, well, I don't know what like. Like I knew something about Raney I might never of known before."
"Anyhow," said Joe, "we found Eric's body before ice-out, but Raney's never did turn up."
"Oh!" Vicki cried. "It's past eight! I don't want to miss my show!"
"You can stay here with me if you're scared," Marey said to Galandrielle after her parents ran into the other room.
"I have to get back to my Nana."
"Well, I'll stay there with you since it was my parents telling you ghost stories."
Galandrielle laughed. "Oh, all right. I certainly don't mind."
Marey poked her head into the living room. Her mother was curled up tight against her father. "I'm gonna take Gal home," she said.
"Okay, honey," Vicki said.
"No need to rush back over them icy roads either, baby."
"Oh, Joe, honestly," said Vicki.
"Nana?" Galandrielle said softly as she helped Regine into bed.
"Yes, my little one?"
"Was Eric Boileau my father?"
"Father! Father? My goodness, no. Raney was like you. Pretty much."
"Well, then, how'd she get me?"
Regine shrugged and waved her hand absently.
"Now, every now and then," Joe said, "some damn fool gets on his snowshoes or his goddamn cross-country skiis and goes out searching for them. They say three love-struck Picard cousins went up into them mountains one after the other, trailing them poor girls. What they were looking for who can say."
"Oh, Dad," said Marey. "Just tell about the Picard boys."
"Welp, the first sister left a few years after they showed up. I'll say, oh, nineteen-thirty or so. She was the silent one. Never spoke. And this Paul Picard loved her like crazy. If he ever saw her he'd run up to her and smile, try to carry whatever she was carrying or hold open a door, things like that, and she'd just look at him like he was blurry or something. Poor guy. Welp, one day after everyone'd been indoors a few days because of a snowstorm, Paul Picard went to the house, the same one you live in now, Gal. The girls were outside cleaning up, same as everyone in town. Regine was shoveling the drive. Paul went up to her. Must've took every shred of courage he had. And asked her where her sister was, the silent one. After a couple of moments Regine says, 'She went home.'
"Now, there was a little one in the family by then. About ten years old. That'd be Raney's mother, Fleur, of course. She sort of looked at Regine like she was asking a question then looked up at the mountains and Regine kind of smiled back at her so Paul Picard believed he knew that's what she meant by went home. And he got his goddamn skiis and went up into them mountains and got froze to death. Some hikers found him right after the first thaw, looking all the world like a sleeping baby."
It was another dry, clear day with no weather happening except for the cold. Gal joined Regine in the yard. They stood in the snow and stared up at the mountain covered with black trees and blue-grey stone and white, white snow. "It's days like these," said Regine.
"What do you mean?" Gal said.
Regine shrugged and shook her walker. "They make me restless, I guess."
"Restless for what?"
Regine shrugged again and shook her walker. She lifted it up out of the snow and shook it at the mountain. "Maybe my youth."
"Nana, your youth has never left you."
"Ha!" She waved her hand at Gal and pushed the walker towards the shed to retrieve the snow scoop.
On days like this, if the sun were at some exact point in its course and Galandrielle were in some certain state of reverie, she sometimes thought she saw something in the house. Something between a sunset and a whirlpool of snow. Something between a memory and a word. She would try to catch it with her eyes, but then it dissolved and she'd look and there Nana would be, standing at the door of the room, walker abandoned.
"The last Picard boy to go was younger and went after the one called Pearl. Now, them two was friends right from the beginning, right from the day them girls showed up, they hit it right off. They went to dances together and made general mischief around town. They was tight for years and years. Now that particular Picard, Sammy, was something of a rebel. His dad started up Picard-Rousse. It were just Picard then. The ones who don't like to sell you no gas, Gal, and this is why.
"Pearl was as beautiful as the next one, and bright and educated. But she weren't about to marry no one and she weren't no Catholic. After they got to be about thirty-five, forty, old Picard started wanting Sammy to quit galavanting with a godless Nadeau girl and settle down and marry with an eye towards taking over the family business which Sammy did not want to do. He hated gas he said and he weren't no business man. It was okay with old Picard if Sammy wanted to marry Pearl. It was high time she calmed down and acted like a grown woman. Of course, she'd have to be baptized a Catholic and all that. I doubt Sammy even brought it up to her.
"Welp one day Sammy went over to the house to fetch her for something and Fleur told him she weren't there. Sammy didn't need no more explanation than that. He was an expert outdoorsman. Hafta be after all them years going around with Pearl. He got his snowshoes and some gear and told a buddy of his, 'I'm going after her.'
"Course, by the time word got to old Picard and Sammy's sister, they figured him lost for good. Figured the loggers would find his remains with the next thaw which they never did. Years later after Sammy's sister married Pete Rousse and they was doing real good with the gas station, the Rousses went to Boston on an excursion and goddamned if they didn't run into old Sammy down there making a living outta painting pictures of mountains and trees and snow!
"Welp, Sammy might of been a rebel, but he weren't no romantic and he weren't no fool. He took the opportunity of Pearl's disappearing to run away to Boston."
Do I have fifteen years left with Gal? Marey wondered. Galandrielle knocked away some snow from the buckle of Marey's ski. She pulled off her gloves and deftly un-did and re-did the buckle. "Better?" said Gal.
"Much. Thank you."
They were twenty-seven now. Pearl was forty when she disappeared. Perhaps Gal would wait until like Regine her hair was white and her fingers all knotted up and she had a walker to shake at the sky.
Before this winter, Marey never cared to snowshoe or ski or take winter hikes. When they were in high school, Gal was looked upon with grudging respect by the boys and some derision by the girls because she was known to camp out overnight in January. Now Marey went with her and learned everything about the lake and the woods in winter. Now Galandrielle could not so much as make a snow ball without Marey there to make one too. "I don't want you to disappear like the others."
"I'm not planning to disappear."
"Were the others planning to disappear?"
Gal shrugged and looked off across the snow. She looked like Regine.
The girls were silent. Their skiis swooshed against the dry snow. Now and again a breeze or a bird disturbed the bough of a tree and the snow rustled down on them. The sky was flat and blue and the cold was everywhere. The trees stood staunch and easy as if they too were out enjoying the winter, as if they were acquaintances. The quiet was everywhere. Marey thought, If Gal disappears into this, I won't blame her.
"Don't let's speak of it," Gal said as Marey pulled into the drive of the white house. When they had left early in the morning Regine stood in the yard with the snow scoop in one hand and the walker in the other. Now it was dark except for a wide white moon and there Regine stood, the snow scoop in one hand and the walker in the other.
"Nana!" Galandrielle shouted. "Nana! What are you doing? You'll freeze to death!"
"What's that? Oh, I'm coming, dear. Coming."
"I'll stay," Marey whispered to Gal as Regine divested herself of her coat and boots, none the worse for her day's vigil.
Gal shook her head. "No. That's all right. Will you come back in the morning?"
Gal smiled. "Yes. For breakfast."
"Nana," Galandrielle said over supper, "are you planning to disappear?"
"Oh, well, we all disappear one day, dear. What will you do when I go? Will you have a companion? Perhaps your friend Marey will stay with you what with this central heat and all. Fleur had a companion you know. Not here in this house, but while she was away at college and before Raney come. A boy. Just a young one and small too as I recall. Very sweet. Well."
Galandrielle woke up and got out of bed. The hallway was chill and the full moon shined white through the window. Regine stood at the end of the hall staring out across the yard. Gal started to speak but she heard something through the silence. It was the wind. It howled but it was a different sound, less hollow, higher and sweeter. The intonations rose and fell insistently.
Regine stood still in front of the window and Gal stood beside her. Whirlpools of dry snow curled up from the yard, now wispy, now wide, twirling together then separating, touching and combining and dancing away.
"Oh, Nana," Gal whispered. "Please don't go."
Regine did not answer.
The night was beautiful and deep and mysterious. The chill of the hallway crept right through Gal's bones, but it didn't bother her, it comforted her. Nor did she feel sleepy, but alert. She had no desire to seek out warmth.
Finally Regine whispered, "Yes...shall I join my sisters...." and her voice trailed into silence. "Well, honestly, Gal," she said after a moment, "go to bed."
Gal went to the door of her room but waited until Regine had gone into her room and closed the door.
Galandrielle woke up again late in the morning to the racket of the phone ringing and the doorbell buzzing. She grabbed the phone by her bed and ran downstairs for the door. "Hello? Can I call you back, Marey? What -- constable's here -- hold on --"
She opened the door. "Hi," she said. "Come on in."
"Gal, someone seen your grandmother walking across the lake and...."
Galandrielle wrapped a coat around herself and walked into her boots and out into the yard. The day was clear and every tree on the mountain was in a sharp outline. The constable gave her his binoculars and through them she saw Regine skidding across the last few hundred feet of ice towards the mountain. The eddies of snow began to swirl around her feet then grow taller. They danced in and out of each other; touched and combined, separated and came together until Regine disappeared into the whiteness.
"I got Joe and Vicki on the phone getting a bunch of snowmobiles together to go out after her..."
Galandrielle handed back the binoculars. "What in the world for?"
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