We were lying on the beach. Marie, who felt the cold less than I did, had gone for a swim after our picnic. She’d come back to lie next to me, without drying off, enjoying the hot sun on her wet... [+]
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Pa had always had a lot of respect for Sam’s grandmother.
That must have been at least partly to do with what people in the village used to say about her.
Pa used to say that civilization took the best part of men away from them. And that the people in the village, who lived in civilization, had built a sort of altar at which they worshipped and which corrupted them a little more every day. “They throw into the shadows everything they don’t understand,” was another thing Pa used to say, “and the more they think they know, the less they understand whatever it might be.” For Pa, a man had no need to know any more than what was of use to him in his everyday life, and his own everyday life was chopping down trees.
Sam’s grandmother lived some distance from the village. Like we did, too. But unlike us, who used to go there every day or almost, either for school or to go to the stores, grandmother was completely isolated from life in the village. She was just a silhouette they sometimes caught sight of, or thought they had glimpsed far off, in the play of shadows. She was no longer fully real, yet was indeed present. They spent a considerable amount of time talking about her behind her back. Rarely had they anything good to say about her, and they always made a quick sign of the cross after they mentioned her. They even used her name at times to threaten their kids into eating their soup or doing their homework. “Superstition!” Pa would spit out. Ma said that Sam’s grandmother and God would not fall out just because she didn’t go to church. She added that there was more than one way of being a good Christian, and that it was more to do with love and forgiveness. Although church was very important, of course. Ma often gave Sam some food she had cooked, and sometimes even a warm rug or a scarf she had knitted, for him to take to his grandmother. She also told Sam that she prayed for her, and Sam, who knew how important this was to Ma, was very grateful.
I remember one day, when I was eight, I asked Ma why the people in the village didn’t like Sam’s grandmother. “Will that make you see her differently?” she replied. I thought for a moment. I thought about the pies she made with forest berries for Sam and which he shared with me and Millie, and about her way of running her hand through our hair whenever she saw us – the feeling of peace and strength that generated in us – and about the smell of the weird cigarettes she smoked, and I replied to Ma that no, I didn’t see why that would change anything. Then I shouted for Millie and we went to pick blackberries for dessert.
The story I want to tell happened the following winter. Sam, Millie and I were coming out of school. The sky threatened snow but we couldn’t imagine that a storm was just about to bear down on us. Not that quickly. We were used to storms. We knew how they could drown out everything around in a white fog and make the temperatures fall by more than twenty degrees in a few minutes, but we normally saw them coming in the distance and had time to seek shelter.
We were still a mile or more from home when the wind got up, blowing an icy dust on us, which stuck to our bodies, trying to penetrate us by any means it could. We quickened our steps. Soon, icy needles were stabbing our faces, forcing us to screw up our eyes and keep our heads down. The wind was swirling all around us and sometimes it felt as if there was no air left to breathe. Already we could see no further than five yards ahead. I picked Millie up in my arms. She protested that she was big enough to manage by herself, but I was much too strong – built like a lumberjack, as Pa used to say with pride – for her to put up a fight. I could have run home carrying her, but that would have meant abandoning Sam, as he could hardly keep up, and there was no question of that.
When we got home, we could scarcely see our hands when we held our arms out in front of us. We told Sam to stay at our house and wait for the storm to pass. His grandmother’s house was not very far away but everything is too far when a storm is pounding the landscape.
Of course, Ma was relieved we had got home, but very soon she went back to her place at the window. She was trying to make out, through the thick white curtain which the wind was hurling against our panes, the forest on the side of the hill, the place where Pa must be. When I realised that he had not had time to get out of the forest when the storm started, that he was still stuck there, caught in that icy white darkness, I felt my legs give way. Sam stopped me from falling. “It’ll be alright,” he whispered to me, “you’re father’s a strong man, he’ll get out.” But his voice was trembling. Millie was clinging to Ma. We all fell silent. There was only the screaming of the wind, the creaking of the house, and the sound of our own breathing.
When the door opened, for a few seconds we couldn’t believe it. Even when it was obvious that the man covered in snow, standing in the doorway, was Pa, we wondered if we weren’t dreaming. His teeth were chattering. He didn’t seem capable of walking one more step. Ma pulled him in front of the fire and while she was helping him take off his ice-stiffened clothes, he said, “I followed the light in the storm”. None of us thought he was hallucinating. Pa explained how the storm had closed in around him and how, after zigzagging through the trees, often bumping into them, he had sunk to his knees from exhaustion, wondering how long it took a man to die from cold. He had closed his eyes, and then he had felt something like a hand running through his hair, and suddenly he had found the strength to stand up. In front of him, there was a light piercing the fog. Glimmering weakly. He had followed it, and it had led him home. The storm held him in its grip, refusing to give up its prey so easily, but the light waited for him, and he felt within him that strength which urged him to keep going forward. We said nothing. We just listened to him. Even Ma, who had gone to fetch a towel from the bathroom, was transfixed. Like a hand running through his hair, I repeated to myself. Pa and I looked at each other. I could see that he and I were thinking the same thing. Then he turned to Sam and said to him, “Tell your grandmother that from this day on there is no question of her paying for the wood that I bring her.”
Translated by Wendy Cross