Everyone applauds aggressive women now, but the shy ones haven’t made quite so many gains. For instance, Carol got banished from Memphis because she argued with her father at a dinner party. Her dad endured the rest of the evening quietly, but when that last guest left he shut the door, turned to his daughter, and announced the punishment. Leave Tennessee. She’d had one moment of bravery, but right after that she returned to being meek. Because he was so displeased, he bought her a luxury cabin in Northern Vermont. Up high. Near Canada. That far.
A twenty hour drive and now that she was almost there the world had disappeared. A blizzard funneled down between the green mountains; snow slopped against her windshield. Carol struggled to see. What she could see was that white ice pestilence had spread over the natural world. On bridges, winds clubbed her car from the left lane to the right. This wasn’t weather it was warfare.
She had, of course, heard there was a state named Vermont, but in her 43 years never dreamt she’d do anything awful enough to demand that she live there. Still, if her father said go then Carol had to do so. She had six brothers, all older, who orbited under the same influence. If their dad ever died Carol wondered who would tell his seven children when to breathe.
Every time the car went more than forty miles per hour Carol took her foot from the accelerator and wouldn’t give it back. But I guess these Vermonters hadn’t heard of death. They were going seventy and only getting faster no matter what this snowstorm said. Carol was so damn scared of getting smashed from behind because the blizzard even hid big trucks.
The isolation made her batty. No music because radio waves couldn’t even survive the cold. She talked just to hear a voice inside her car. Only fifty miles to go. Carol swung back into the slow lane. Her yellow purse was in the passenger seat.
Her cabin came with servants, though they’d probably prefer the term ‘employees.’
Carol wondered, Will my servants weep if I never get there?
To make herself laugh, and think less of crashing, she came up with doofy names. Fake names. Like Natasha Tackmacky. Swoop Umberton. Tubby Bumpers was a good name for a gangster. It was a kid’s game, but she liked it.
She was headed to a resort so rarified that there were only nine other cabins on the land. Ten people to a mountain leaves a lot of space. In the brochure they promised an atmosphere of rugged hospitality, but Carol had called first to be sure they wouldn’t try to turn her into a woodsman in a week. Not even a year. No, thank you.
Slow as she drove on the highway, she went even slower now that she’d taken the proper exit to this service road. Carol feared snow, but was still fascinated by the enormous off-white mounds the trucks had created when clearing the streets. Just captivated.
Look at how high it gets, she thought. Doesn’t it look despicable.
The snow, now ice, was gathered on only one side of the road in a ten foot wall to her right. Everything beyond it was hidden, but Carol didn’t care. What couldn’t she see? A frozen lake? Shivering birds? Icicles growing on trees? Even her father hadn’t been this far north before. She expected everyone to be fat and she wouldn’t blame them for it. You’d have to try and stay warm. She expected everyone to be fat and to have lots of kids. Carol could sympathize.
Base camp was a utilitarian, grey building at the foot of the mountain where they told her to check-in upon arrival. Where staff would always be on call. Best described as a cinder block dropped into snow. Not ugly, exactly. Well, she would never say so to anyone, but she might write it down in a letter to her favorite brother.
The road split, one path leading to the base camp while the other turned abruptly to the right, passing behind the enormous, ongoing wall of plowed ice. Carol wasn’t a curious person so she didn’t even look in that direction. The brochure had told her exactly how to go.
At least there was parking inside a heated hanger behind base camp. Carol’s name was painted on the wall before an empty space. Of the other nine spots, seven were full. Every covered car was a big boy. Carol was the only one naive enough to drive up here in a sedan.
She got out of her chilly car and opened her jacket because the garage was so well heated, even the cars were to be pampered. Carol only brought enough supplies to fill her purse because everything else was in the cabin already.
Three weeks before driving up a woman called Carol in Memphis explaining that they’d replaced the windows of her cabin with shatterproof plastic that could withstand temperatures far below zero and better insulate the rooms. Later a man rang to ask if she preferred any particular rifle scope. Sometimes three calls in one day.
But then they hadn’t built a walkway from the garage into the base camp building!
Carol was forced to go outside.
Her jacket clapped open and closed. She crouched forward trying to zip it quick. Since when did the wind get such sharp edges?
She got the coat closed, the hood up, but it wasn’t much better even then. Instead of running to the front doors Carol kept a certain pace. This actually hurt. It was so cold and she wasn’t used to even a smidgen of it, but she couldn’t rush because Carol didn’t want to look foolish. What if she fell? She hated embarrassment. Carol was happy to go unnoticed.
Snow on the ground was eight inches deep, her boots only came up to her ankle. There were tracks already made, big footprints, so she stepped into them, trying to keep her shins dry. She walked halfway to the front doors before she recognized that her right arm was light because she’d left the yellow purse back in her car.
Carol turned around in the aforementioned tracks. Some snow got into her socks, but not too much. As she moved Carol got to see her mountain.
There it was.
On every other earthly surface snow made her retch, but on the mountain it seemed like suitable upholstery. Maybe a mountain was the only thing powerful enough to keep from drowning under the inches. She couldn’t see the cabins, but there were so many trees to hide them. Carol hoped her place wasn’t so far up. She was slim, but not much for exercise.
She thought she saw one of the trails as a white thread looping between the trees, but had trouble following it with her eye so she used a finger instead. She stuck it out, closed one eye and tried to trace the way.
Sometimes she lost the route by following into some sparse pluck of trees and when she did had to start from the bottom again. Carol liked to concentrate. She could do and re-do a task without getting bored. She’d always been kind of a dull person so she excelled at tedious things.
Then bells rang out from beyond the mountain.
The noise screwed her focus right out the window. They weren’t cathedral bells, more like an old rotary phone, but greatly amplified.
It wasn’t coming from the base camp.
Damn, it was an enormous sound.
So disconcerting that she fell down in the snow. Slowly. It was as if the noise had nudged her to the ground.
The bells kept on. Muffled only by the cold in her ears. She was down on her face. Disoriented and alone. She couldn’t even lift her head to breathe until she consciously thought of how silly it would be to drown on solid ground. Then she lifted her head, but only that.
“Are you Carol?”
A big man hunched over her. He wasn’t even wearing a coat. There was a beard and long brown hair, but other than this his protection was pretty flimsy. A sweater, slacks. At least he was wearing tall boots otherwise Carol would‘ve believed he was a yeti.
“You’re Carol?” he asked again after helping her up.
“Shhhhh. Please,” she whispered.
There was snow in her nose and on her eyebrows. Once she stood he was much smaller than he first seemed. She looked down, not only at him, but at the ground. She didn’t notice that the bells had stopped until the little guy helped Carol inside.
Well, no one would accuse these people of being colorful. What a lot of different shades of brown there were inside base camp. Chestnut couches. Walnut office chairs. Russet colored carpeting. Bookshelves made of pine. Gah.
Another man walked out of a back office and he seemed just like the one who’d found her in the snow. Bearded, efficient, sincere. Was this the Vermonter’s uniform? Carol accepted a handkerchief from this new one and patted her eyebrows down. Both gestured toward a comfortable chair.
“This is Carol,” said the short one.
“Did you make good time driving?” asked the other.
Ugh. This is what Carol thought. Oof. Driving questions. What was next? A glove discussion? Crop reports?
Carol was a plain woman who never swore, so few suspected she had such a flare for sarcasm. Of course, she kept the observations to herself.
I wonder if his wife’s beard is as thick as his?
The one who asked the question soon left to check on the last details of her cabin. His short friend went into the back office while Carol sat in a chair trying to remember why she’d disobeyed her father.
Do you know that she expected to be disciplined? Maybe even wanted it. At the dinner party it occurred to her that she’d never seen her father contradicted and that was the start of problems. For the rest of the evening the idea played on her mind. Never even heard the word ‘no’ used on her dad. Can you imagine? Carol had to know. She had to. It wasn’t curiosity, but compulsion. She tried to keep food in her mouth just so she wouldn’t go contradict the man. But then she found herself standing beside him during a toast. He asked some rhetorical question of the attendees. She answered though. Really loudly. Told him she disagreed. What’s going to happen? she asked herself. He’ll just yell at me a while. Of course that tickling curiosity wasn’t the real reason she got loud with her dad. But at this point Carol didn’t understand that.
“This special thermal jacket will keep you warm when the temperature really drops.”
Carol opened one eye. “It’s going to get colder?”
The small, bearded clerk smiled.
“How do I get up to my place?” she asked him as she put on the silver jacket. Her name was stitched above the right breast and a waterproof lighter was sewn under the fabric at her left shoulder. It was this amenity that made Carol expect a team of horses to whinny her up the slope.
“You walk!” he laughed. “It’s what your feet are for.”
He wasn’t being confrontational, but Carol felt insulted. She was sure this man thought the whole resort was foolish. That back in his hand-built log cabin he and a bearish wife laughed about the venture before tapping trees for sap.
She decided to call him Joliet McGee, last of the true mountain men.
Never aloud, but to herself, obviously.
“Of course,” she mumbled.
Though Carol thought up these insults, she made herself fake a friendly laugh because she didn’t want to be known as the bitch. Not on arrival day. There had been so many times when her timidity had been taken as aloofness that Carol could actually police herself. A lifetime of awkwardness made Carol hyper-aware of every action. Her voice hardly ever raised. Her hands mostly stayed at her sides.
The clerk went to the office and came back with snowshoes, two poles. Carol wasn’t sure what to tip. He came around the desk, went down on a knee and began to undo the straps on the left snowshoe.
“I know how to put them on.”
He got up.
That did it.
On day one.
She hadn’t even yelled, but his hurt feelings were clear. Back home it was rare to see a person wince. If you were rude they might tell you all about it, but even as they chastised you there would be a smile. Now this man was almost broken down to tears simply because Carol rebuffed the slightest hospitality. Strangers, she thought. This whole country is a stranger to me.
“You better get up there then,” he said.
He wasn’t being friendly now; his face lost all its teeth. His beard became a layer of solid ground; you couldn’t find a smile under there, even with a dowsing rod. Carol accepted that his charms had gone away, to be replaced by a sullen, pouty rudeness.
“I had some things shipped, when will they arrive?”
“Soon,” he said.
“Is there anything else for me to do here?”
He took a questionnaire from behind the front desk and slapped it on the surface. Then he dropped a pen.
“Am I filling this out?”
He was over by the register now, at the far end of the front desk, fascinated by the intricacies of separating rubber bands. “Not yet.”
The four page form asked for certain of her measurements: like how often she wanted groceries delivered to her cabin. If she needed a DVD player, a Bowie knife. Box of cards. Even a pair of stilts. This place cost so much that if she wanted an indoor pool they’d have it done in fifteen hours.
“I’ll leave this here,” she told the small desk clerk, but that man wasn’t even in the room anymore! He’d left her to deal with the snowshoes all right. She put them on inside the lounge.
Before this became a private club, base camp for emperors and their families, it was just another ski lodge in uppermost Vermont. Fifty thousand people must have walked through here over time, but they were locked out now. Carol sat in the large empty quiet room, long familiar with a solitary lifestyle.
Carol walked outside using the two ski poles to help her balance. The blizzard was just a smattering here; the way mountains made a rim around this valley you might not hear a cataclysmic wind until it was at your feet anyway.
She could hardly feel the snow against her face. It was on the ground, but not in the air. Two feet of snow on the tennis courts was about normal for February here. Carol thought of camping back inside base lodge for the entirety of her visit, even if she was here for ten more years, but the idea of staying in a room with that thin-skinned clerk propelled her toward the wilderness.
Her cabin wasn’t too high into the mountain, not a mile. She took a map from the front desk. There were some homes, on Goat Path or Raven’s Wind, that would take half a day to reach. Carol was so glad her father didn’t hate her quite that much.
Each place was so far from the others that if the whole cabin went to fire the workers at base camp would know before her neighbors.
Carol got lost around that base camp. Just trying to find the trail that lead to her cabin she wound herself half-backwards three times. It was like getting lost in someone’s kitchen. She felt stupid. There really wasn’t much ground to cover, but the snow glowed under sunlight. So bright it was confusing.
Finally she had to go back into the lodge, get a pair of ski goggles (this from a third desk attendant who looked much the same as the other two except he was in his twenties). Carol put the goggles on to shave off a little daytime shine. Soon as she did the path showed, not twenty feet away and to her right, a wide space between some coniferous trees. Big enough for a truck.
Carol took off the goggles because she couldn’t believe she’d missed a path that big, but soon as she did the poor woman was back to squinting from the glare. She lost the trail. Gone. Right out of her vision. She directed herself to see the space, but couldn’t. Carol put the goggles on again and, yes, right, there it was. She took them off and it was gone.
This was unnatural. Even with the sun directly on her forehead Carol thought she should be able to see the way.
She put the goggles on and looked above her.
While the sun was still up there, a chemical battery, there were also five powerful lamps on top of the base camp, their light focused on the ground surrounding Carol. They reflected against the ice and snow. Bright enough that no one was going to stumble across the field, up the mountain, toward the cabins, by any funny luck. You could only come to the party if you knew where the party was. Yet one more precaution to protect the well-off residents.
Carol just loved it.
The easily-offended bearded little clerk from the base lodge, passed her by just as she entered the path. He was carrying groceries, up, possibly for her. He gave no greeting. He was probably supposed to have told her about the hidden path, assigned her a pair of special, tinted lenses, but he hadn’t. Most men, at the slightest rejection, revenge themselves on women in these petty ways.
The snowshoes on the snow made a sound like cardboard being torn slowly. Not loud, but the woods were silent so she heard each step. Trees were packed tight on both sides. The path was a luxurious eight feet wide.
One hundred years before this, when the mountain hadn’t yet been combed free of knots, what kind of men looked up and thought they wanted to live here?
Carol was actually amazed that human civilization wasn’t confined to flat ground. Using herself as a hardship yardstick, Carol never would have left the warm veldt so many centuries earlier.
Every hundred feet tiny piles of cut wood were stacked and sealed in plastic, resting by the side of the trail. Four logs per pack. Plenty more would be brought to the cabins every other morning, but if one of the cabin-dwellers wanted to live rough and outdoors for a night they were provided for.
Living on this mountain was safer than her drive up from Memphis. The servants had even gone through the land removing any four-legged creature with claws. If they could have figured a way to keep the birds out, they would have. If she wanted to hunt a rabbit Carol only had to call down the night before and one would be released near her home. But for no other reason would there be any creatures roaming near her home.
Other than the snowshoes there was only the hollow clap of silence as she walked.
While there were countless luxuries to the life here her cabin was still small.
A lamp was on inside. Carol hoped Joliet McGee wasn’t lingering about. It was five p.m., the sun already setting off. When at its height sunlight couldn’t penetrate the tops of the trees, but later in the day, light sifted in sideways from the west. At five o’clock the woods were brighter than at noon. Shafts of illumination spread across the ground turning the ice to amber.
The cabin had three rooms, two small and one larger. A bedroom, bathroom and the largest, a living room/kitchenette with a desk and full bookshelf. She’d sent them a list of the stories she wanted, fiction and non-fiction, and they were here. Joliet McGee wasn’t.
She had paper and a wastebasket. Knives, forks, spoons and dishes. Coffee mugs. Cloth napkins instead of paper because paper napkins were wasteful. This wasn’t her opinion, it was in the brochure.
The roof was a steep isosceles triangle with a cap of snow three feet thick. The top of it was still soft, but the layer right against the ceiling was gray ice.
Every door hinge dripped oil.
There was a fireplace in the bedroom. It had been turned on. The sound of wood snapping in the flames made Carol so happy that she shut the front door, locked it and fell asleep on her bed wearing all her clothes, even the jacket.
At five Carol woke up feeling like she’d done right for herself. She’d never yelled at her father before. When she disagreed with him it was always demure. Hell, when her brothers disagreed with him it was demure, too. In fact the boys were even more docile.
This is a certain kind of father, the one Carol had. That global events occurred while he slept struck him as hubris on the world’s part. Consequently Carol’s father only rested three hours a night.
In her new bed Carol laughed remembering her father’s shame in front of the guests when she stood at the table and threw a wine glass. She undressed while lying down, throwing each piece across the floor and got under the comforter. There were no drapes on the small square windows of the cabin, but wooden shutters instead.
Five a.m. Her first morning on the mountain.
Before making breakfast she masturbated. It didn’t take long. Six minutes lying on her stomach. She hadn’t played with herself for weeks because she was so stressed about getting here. She came so fast—just a light one—there wasn’t even time to fantasize, just to tingle.
Now Carol was ready for the day.
She went outside to clear the roof. There was no hurrying.
The path up to the cabin had been shoveled since she’d walked up the night before. Carol thought of Joliet McGee clearing an entire mountain by himself and hoped his back hurt, the sensitive little wart.
Except for the path the snow was thigh deep. Near the pelvis, not the knee. Carol thought she’d climb up on the roof and at least knock off a foot of the loose stuff. If she could get the ice on her roof exposed she thought the sunlight could melt some of it away. Easier to stay warm when you don’t have frost covering your head. Of course, she was wrong, the ice was acting as insulation, but do the Inuit know how to prevent heat rash?
Since she didn’t have a ladder Carol had to use a broom. She tapped around the roof’s shaggy white cap, but even the fresh flakes resisted. When she really swung that broom, the bristles like the blades of an ax, the snow shook, but it sure didn’t slide away.
Carol got her gloves and then climbed one of the tall trees right next to the cabin. The branches were thin so it was hard to balance; it took her twenty minutes to climb high enough, another half hour to get her balance and feel secure. Then she poked at the roof with the handle.
Poked. Jabbed. Stabbed. Gored.
But forget that. How about trying to kill a coyote with a tooth pick. Talk about one slow-ass task. Pick. Pick. Oh forget it.
Carol finally threw the broom to the ground, decided to give in, but then her natural sense of superiority kicked in. She was going to lose a battle of wills to ice? She climbed back down the tree, picked up the broom, returned to her branch now genuinely perturbed. Her father had given her that determination. Though she was a quiet person, Carol had been stubborn since her date of birth.
So then she turned the broom around, held it by the handle, and swung the thick bristled bottom harder and harder against the snow on the roof. She managed to stand, in a crouching sort of way, which put more power in the blows. Until her arms were hurting through the shoulders. Until she was sweating. Until she wished someone else would come do this while she supervised. She’d like to see her dad up here with his shoddy hip. Wished to see him smashing so far that he fell out of the tree, face first. Into some stones.
Carol sighed. Stopped beating the ceiling.
“I should have got over that man when I turned thirty,” she said to the ice. “Who do I blame, me or my daddy?”
The ice cracked loudly. Carol thought the roof was caving in. She got scared for her father’s deposit. It was the first thing she thought about: His money.
All of it was coming down. The new snow and much of the old ice. Sliding so slowly that it could have been caught if only one of the Nephilim were here to help. Why didn’t this resort employ a few giants?
After sliding for minutes, which Carol watched, that shit fell right off the cabin. It made a tremor so powerful that the nearest trees rocked respectfully.
Carol was impressed with the display until she realized that her entire doorway was now blocked.
Carol trudged down the mountain, cursing and carrying a broom.
She’d forgotten she was even holding it, but then was glad she brought it because she wasn’t wearing snowshoes and needed help to keep balance. Each step she sank down to her shin.
A woman called, “Behind you.”
When Carol turned a woman was casually sluicing down the hill on cross-country skis.
Another guest, she had to be, this fifty year old woman with hard orange skin around her mouth (it was the only part of her body exposed). Another guest because she didn’t offer to help like the employees were contracted to. A slim figure dressed in a bright blue and red snowsuit going down the hill, her upper body motionless because the navigation was all going on in her lower legs.
Carol stepped off the path and watched her go on.
A moment later a sound came from the trees. The dull pounding of a white horse on the path. A big white barking horse.
No. A large white dog. A Samoyed. Running after its owner.
Carol fell backward into the snow, in her jeans, her ass wet. Lucky she’d put on a jacket. Once the dog reached her it stopped and looked down. Carol could have climbed on its back. No kidding. With room for a small child to join them
The woman on cross-country skis, farther down the path, was coming back uphill. The woman breathed harder and speared the ground with her ski poles as she went upwards now. Stopped beside Carol and the dog.
It was such a big thing. Not tall like a Mastiff or Great Dane, only about as high up as a Shepherd, but it was massive and well groomed; the fur emanated out from the body in thousands of small white strikes of lightning.
The Samoyed leaned close to Carol and licked her forehead.
The cross-country skier said, “You must be a good person. She only licks people who are trustworthy.”
Carol didn’t believe in that hocum one bit. Animals are more sensitive than you or I. Yeah, yeah. Sell that nonsense to your house full of cats.
Carol smiled and said, “Thank you.” She was actually thanking the Samoyed.
The woman and the dog watched her get up. Didn’t leave until it was clear that she was fine. Carol waited, let them get on a few hundred paces because she felt silly enough carrying the broom, falling in the snow, sealing her cabin in ice. The woman disappeared first, soon after her the dog. Once she was alone Carol walked toward the base camp. It was around then that the bells began.
Victor LaValle is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, three novels, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, and The Devil in Silver, and an ebook only novella, Lucretia and the Kroons.
He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Whiting Writers' Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the key to Southeast Queens.
He was raised in Queens, New York. He now lives in Washington Heights with his wife and son. He teaches at Columbia University.