Volume 1 Issue 4
Novel Excerpt
Red Snowflakes
Emily Elbom
A Midwestern gothic with a touch of old Hollywood

When Max’s grandmother was dying, this is what she told him: She remembered planting Russian olives in the cemetery. She’d been very young. Russian olives here, her father said, but poplars for shelterbelts. Later, once the Russian olives grew up, spread out, and her father lay permanently under their shade, farmers started complaining they sucked up too much water. Many were chopped down. There were bonfires. Yet poplars were still used as shelterbelts. It was then, fifteen years later, the year the Russian olives she planted were chopped down, that she met her husband. She met him at a bonfire. The bonfire, she is sure, burned the branches of Russian olives. And so it was. A long time ago it sometimes seems—such a party.

When his grandmother was dying, this is what Max told her: In the spring, when the snow melts, we’ll plant a Russian olive in your yard. You’ll see. You’ll sit in a yard chair and together we’ll dump buckets of water on it. Everyone will come.

Mormor was propped up in her bed, her little dog sleeping next to her on a pillow.

But he knew that surely she couldn’t wait for the ground to thaw; she couldn’t wait for a Russian olive. Only her body would wait until the snow melted and the dirt loosened. Until then, she would be frozen, just like the earth.

Your Norwegian has gotten very bad, she said.

Almost as bad as your English, Max said and smiled.

Bah, she said. It’s my only gift to you, it’s your mother’s mother tongue.

I don’t remember my mother, Max said.

Which is why your children don’t understand a word I say.

They’ll come to see you this weekend, Max said.

Arriving by train?

Yes, Willa and the children are taking a train, he said.

But that’s three days away, she said.

It was true, but it was the best he could do. He wished his wife were there already. She’d know what to do, what needed to be done. Right now a local farmer’s daughter, the Pedersen girl, had been looking after Mormor, at first coming only a few times a day to cook and clean, but then more often, to feed her and take her to the bathroom. She’d called Max after she’d had to spend a few nights. It wasn’t that Mormor was getting old, she’d told him, because Mormor had been getting old a very long time. No, she’d said, it wasn’t that at all. The doctor said that Mormor was dying. You’d better talk to my wife, he’d told the Pedersen girl. Later, after the phone call, his wife told him he’d better make the drive. Your mother’s mother, she said.

The dog woke and stood up and shook itself, and then settled closer to Mormor, who was staring out the window. Max poured her a glass of water from a pitcher sitting on a tray next to her bed. There was a blue box of Coast Maid Sanitary drinking straws. The box had a smiling cartoon picture of a nurse who said: Protecting our Nation’s Health. He put in the straw and held the glass for her. Her lips, he realized, were cracking.

Can I get you anything else?

She shook her head, folding her hands across her chest.

I know you’re tired, he said, but can I ask you something?

Next to her, the dog sighed. Or was it her? He couldn’t tell.

I want to ask you about my mother, he said.

Mormor turned her head toward the window again.

But then she answered him.

She held you even while she died, she said. The doctor wanted to put her in a sanitarium for consumptives, but she wouldn’t go—she was always a stubborn daughter. In the end, we had to wash the blood she coughed out of your baby hair.

You shouldn’t tell me these things. That wasn’t what I wanted to know, Max said. He could feel his face turning red and then he told Mormor that he thought he heard the Pedersen girl coming in the kitchen door.

She isn’t supposed to come today, Mormor said.

I’ll go check and come back, he said, and he felt just a little sorry for lying.

He went down to the kitchen, to where the old wall phone was. He knew it was a party line phone and that any of the surrounding farms could listen in on his calls, even if he spoke Norwegian, but he didn’t care.

After two rings, the Pedersen girl’s father answered, and he sounded happy to hear from Max. Mr. Pedersen said it was a shame about Max’s grandmother—he went through the same thing with his own mother just last year. Terrible, he said, had to wait for spring, finally got her into the ground, just before he planted the soybeans.

Sorry, Max said, I hadn’t heard.

I suppose you’re calling about the coming snow, Mr. Pedersen said. I suppose you’ll be wanting Hazel to sit with your grandmother while you go for supplies. I’ll send her over.

Max hadn’t heard anything about snow. The sky was blue as anything. But he hadn’t listened to the radio or gone into town since he’d come to Mormor two days ago, on Monday. And if this was true, if snow was coming, then he’d have to get supplies anyway.

Hazel arrived a few minutes after.

Drove the truck over myself, she said.

He hadn’t seen Hazel in a long time. Not since she was a baby, not since he himself was a boy and would spend long summers with Mormor. She looked younger than twenty. He knew that neighbors gossiped that Hazel had been some kind of last-ditch effort by the Pedersens to have a son. Kinder folks said she’d been a happy accident. Hazel was number seven in a long line of sisters.

Mormor’s upstairs, he said.

Is she worse?

I don’t really know, he said, the doctor hasn’t been here since the day I came.

I’ll see if he should stop by before it snows, Hazel said.

She went to the sink and started washing the dishes Max hadn’t bothered to do since he came. He felt guilty about that, and so he stood there looking at her instead of going out to his car, driving away, maybe into town or somewhere, like he’d planned. She turned around. She’d put on a blue feedsack apron, one with tiny printed blue kittens playing with pink balls of string. Her hands were red, soapy.

I know it isn’t the right time to ask, she said, but once Mormor goes, will you sell her farm?

He hadn’t thought about it—he wasn’t sure who would even own the farm when she died. Probably he would, though he wasn’t entirely sure. It had been in their family, he knew, for years. It was homesteaded land. Good, rich land and probably worth quite a lot now.

He shrugged, and when he didn’t say anything, Hazel apologized and said that she was just wondering because in the spring she was marrying Wes Stokka, and they were looking for land of their own. Wanted to stay in the area. But never mind about that now, she said. He told her he’d be back in a few hours, if that was OK with her. She shrugged, and when she didn’t say anything else, he left.

His car started easily, but he let the engine warm anyway. The air wasn’t so cold anymore; he could tell it was warm enough to snow. Smoke blew out of the house’s chimney at an unnatural angle from the sharp wind. The house needed paint: The white peeled, and the porch sagged. But the value wasn’t from the house. The money, he knew, came from the land, the kind of soil the farmers called black gold, and all you had to do was plant. Not exactly the land of milk and honey but surely the land of wheat and flax. The crops practically grew themselves, the dirt just as rich as the Nile’s, and the river, it flowed in the same direction, up into Canada and eventually joining ocean waters.

As the car warmed, he imagined selling his insurance agency and having his family move in with Mormor. But something troubled him. Something from oh, years ago. It had been winter, this he was sure, because he remembered wearing scratchy sweaters, woolen pants. Perhaps it had been Christmas—it would make sense that he’d have been here at Christmas—and he had gone sledding with some boys from a farm over. He thought he had probably been seven or eight. His grandfather had made him a wooden sled, and there were big red snowflakes painted on it, and he and the neighbor boys had spent an hour waxing the metal sled runners. But there were no hills, so the boys took a pair of their father’s milk goats and hitched them to Max’s sled. It started snowing, heavy snow, and they laughed, but the goats kept pulling them toward their barn, toward home. They cut switches from the shelterbelt trees and drove the goats out toward the open fields. The snow kept falling and Max’s heavy sweaters and woolen pants were no longer wet but frozen stiff.

We should go back, he said.

No, the neighbor boys said. We own these goats.

But it’s my sled, he said.

No it’s not, they told him. It’s your grandfather’s. When you leave, it always stays at his house, and his house isn’t your house. You don’t even have the same last name.

Who told you that, he said.

They said that it was something everyone around here knew. He lived with his aunt and uncle, but he wasn’t adopted. His mother was dead. Max had some other name, probably his father’s, and no one had seen him for years.

So he shut up and stayed, and when their eyelashes started freezing together, they knew they were in trouble. And then they had started to get very sleepy. One of the goats pulled loose and ran away. The two neighbor boys tied the other goat to the sled and sat down on it, leaning against each other with their eyes shut. Max tried to tell them it wasn’t fair, that it was his sled, and he didn’t have a brother, but he was too tired, and so he sat in the white snow and shut his own eyes and dreamt of his mother.

He hadn’t died. The boys’ father had somehow found them, and he had taken them all home, where they eventually recovered. Except the first goat, the one who had run away, died, froze to death out on the open fields, and Max’s grandfather had taken him to see it as a lesson three weeks later. The goat, between two drifts of snow, had its eyes shut. A dog had chewed on one of its legs, but other than that, it looked whole and perfect. Frozen.

Later, the sled was destroyed in a spring brush burn, as another lesson. And now, as he sat in his car, he remembered that at the time he had cried because he realized that the sled really hadn’t been his after all. The local paper had run a story with the headline TWO LOCAL BOYS AND A THIRD BOY ALMOST FREEZE TO DEATH IN FREAK WEEKEND BLIZZARD.

       *         *         *

The bar, like the road into town, was empty. Only the bartender, a newcomer Max didn’t know, and two retired farmers were there. He knew both of the farmers, a pair of old brothers. They had been around almost as long as Mormor, and spoke the same language. He went up to them, said hello, and sat at their table.

Heard you were here. Sorry to hear of your grandmother’s decline, the brother with the big nose said.

How’s the wife and kids, the other brother, the one with a long scar above his eye, said. Did they come too?

What are you guys drinking, Max said, as he signaled to the bartender.

Nothing more for me, big-nose said.

My wife’s against it, scar-face said.

They stared sadly into their glasses. The bartender came over with a glass of water for Max.

So what’s the news with the snow, Max said. He noticed that his glass of water didn’t have any ice. It looked rusty and smelled faintly of iron. Well water.

The one with the scar waved his hands toward the door and said that as far as he was concerned, they were in for it, the worst weather they’d seen in an age.

His big-nosed brother agreed, said he could feel it in his bones. Both knees and one elbow.

They all fell silent for a while while the bartender wiped the bar and stacked glassed, but then Max decided he’d take a chance.

Say, fellows, Max said, did you know my mother?

The brothers looked at Max and then at their beer, and then at each other, and sighed.

She was a lovely girl, scar-face said.

Should’ve married a local boy, that’s where she went wrong, big-nose said. After all, didn’t I have two eligible sons?

The phone behind the bar rang and the bartender answered and called Max over.

It’s Hazel Pedersen, he said. Says the doctor was over at your grandmother’s and that she’s gotten a lot weaker. Hazel thinks you should get back sooner than later.

Let me talk to Hazel, Max said. He wondered how she knew he’d be there. Probably called around town, supposed it wasn’t that hard to find out.

Sorry, the phone’s not for customers, the bartender said.

Max put his winter coat back on, his hat, and said so long to the brothers. Big-nose asked him to tell Mormor that he’d stop by with his wife after the blizzard and look in on her. Scar-face told him that if he sold her farm he’d better sell it local.

Who says I’ll sell the farm, Max said, and left.

He stopped by the store, got some food, a few cans of beans, a loaf of bread, and then filled his tank at the station. The sky was no longer blue. It was now gray, but the wind had stopped. As he paid for the gas, the station boy told him it sure looked like snow, jerking his thumb at the sky. By the time Max reached Mormor’s farm, it was snowing big flakes. Hazel was waiting for him in the kitchen. She had made him some kind of casserole for dinner, some broth for his grandmother, and cooked carrots. The house was warm, and Mormor’s dog slept curled up next to the oven. Max pointed upstairs, toward his grandmother’s room.

She’s sleeping now, the doctor gave her something.

Hazel was holding a pair of knitted mittens. She held them up and said that Mormor gave them to her just before the doctor came around. Light green mittens, with red snowflakes. He told Hazel that she’d better get going, it was starting to snow.

I’ll phone tomorrow and see how she’s doing, Hazel said, and left.

He whistled to the dog, who briefly opened its eyes and then put its head back down on its paws. He listened for Hazel’s truck to leave, then went upstairs to Mormor’s room by himself. He stopped by the spare room to put his coat away in the closet. Someone, probably Hazel, had made the bed and set a pile of knitted sweaters on it. He went over to the bed and saw that each sweater had a tiny tag pinned to it. The top one was a very small sweater, orange with yellow chickens, a baby sweater, and the tag read: “For the next baby in the family.” Underneath it was a brown sweater with a green dragon. It was for his son. There were five more knitted bundles. A pink one for his daughter. A green cardigan with fancy glass buttons for his wife. A delicate cream shawl with a sealed envelope pinned to it. The envelope had his aunt’s name, Belinda, on it. And last, a pale blue sweater with red snowflakes. There was no tag, but he knew that this one was his. He held it up, shook it, hoping that a letter, an envelope, maybe a slip of paper, or something, would fall out. But nothing happened. He noticed that his sweater’s blue yarn was very soft, an expensive yarn hard to come by, but the red was rough, scratchy, common. He took his sweater off, one that had come from some store, one that his wife had brought home for him, and instead put on the light blue sweater. He wasn’t sure he liked the light blue and red together, and for some reason it reminded him of his father.

He had asked Mormor about him only once. Mormor had been knitting scarves at the kitchen table. His grandfather had probably been out in his fields or oiling machines in the barn. Max had sat down next to her and just boldly asked. Why did his mother marry his father? And why did he give him away after she died?

She loved you very much, which is enough, Mormor said.

Did she hate his father?

He asked her again. She dropped a stitch and put her knitting down.

When I was very young, we lived next to a lake, but then we left, and crossed the sea, and we came here. I never saw the lake again, and I hardly remember it. But there was a lake, and I once lived next to it, and that was enough. This was all Mormor had said. He’d never asked any more questions after that.

He decided he wouldn’t ask any now. He left the light blue sweater on and went to check Mormor. She was sleeping, her head propped at a funny angle. He noticed new bottles of medicine on the tray. Hazel had put a chair next to the bed, and on the floor was a photo album he’d never seen before and a shiny new bedpan. The drapes had been left open, exposing the outside, and the snow was falling fast. He looked at her again and then went over to the tray to read the medication labels. The bottles were set on top of a short note from the doctor. Now he was sure she’d never wait until spring. He left her door open but took the photo album and went down to the kitchen to wait. He sat at the table and the dog jumped on his lap. After a while, he put his head on his arms and fell asleep.

The kitchen was dark when he woke up, and the wind had come back. After eating some of Hazel’s casserole, he remembered the photo album. The cover was leather, expensive looking, but very old. He wondered if it was something Mormor had brought with her from Norway as a girl. He was about to open it when the dog barked to be let out. He hadn’t heard it come downstairs, and suddenly he felt very alone. He looked out the kitchen window but couldn’t see anything. He looked for a rope, something to tie the dog so it couldn’t get lost, wander off and freeze. Finally, he found a ball of twine in one of the drawers. He tied the dog to the twine and opened the door. He held the twine ball in his hands and the dog ran out barking into the wind, the twine unraveling. The snow was already deep, and the little dog didn’t stay out long. It came in shivering and snowy. He got a dishtowel and rubbed the dog dry.

Don’t worry, he told the dog, you’ll come live with me.

When he sat down, the dog jumped on his lap. He pulled the photo album closer. The leather cover was a bit dusty and he took the dish towel, now wet from wiping the dog, and rubbed the dirt away. The inside cover page was hand-inscribed: Family Mourning Album. The next page had a list of ledgers, like a family Bible, with names, and birth and death dates. Most of the dates were from the nineteenth century. But toward the bottom, second to last, was his mother’s name and dates: Maren Oliversen, Born July 26, 1904 — Died March 13, 1926. Now he knew she had died in spring. The last entry, the one under hers, was his grandfather’s. He flipped through the pages. Photos of mothers holding lifeless children, elderly people propped up in chairs, posed to look lifelike, all of them his long-lost relatives. He stopped to look at one in particular, a small girl propped between her parents. The small girl, he realized, had his nose, or rather, he had hers. He studied the family. Her parents looked off into the distance, their faces sad. Someone, perhaps the photography company, had tinted the small girl’s cheeks pink. Her name, Mim Oliversen. He wondered if the photo was from here or from Norway. The back of the photo might say, but he didn’t want to pull it off the fragile black page. He imagined relatives sending these photos across the sea with long, sad letters, giving their sisters or grandmothers or uncles one last look. He put the album down, afraid to reach the end, afraid he might see his mother. He worried someone had posed her and set him in her arms, a final token, a memento. But would she even be there? Surely by the time she died such photos were no longer taken and were no longer usual things. Mormor probably had just recorded her name, that’s all. He could feel the dog shifting in his lap, trying to get comfortable, and he could hear the wind shaking the house. He wasn’t sure what would be worse, so he decided to go ask Mormor. Gently, he set the dog down, and for once, it followed him upstairs.

She was awake, looking at the ceiling. She turned her head, slowly, and her dog leaped onto her bed.

I see you found your sweater, she said.

Yes, but my birthday isn’t until next fall, he said.

Oh, I just wanted to give it to you early, that’s all. On account of the snow, she said.

Thank you, he said, the blue yarn is very soft. Do you want a glass of water? Some soup broth? I think Hazel left some for you.

No, she said, I’m not feeling so hungry.

Do you want some more of the medicine the doctor left? It’ll make you sleep.

No, I’ll have until spring to sleep.

In the spring, we’ll plant a Russian olive, he said. You’ll see.

I told Hazel you’d sell her the farm, she said.

Mormor, he said, I want to ask you some things.

She shut her eyes and put her hand on the dog.

I’m not sure I have any answers, she said.

So he only asked her about the place she was born, and she said she was born in 1875, and that she was born next to a lake, and now it seemed like a very long time ago.

You remember being born, he asked.

No, but I was there, and that was enough, she said.

He sat in the chair a long time, all night. The power went out, probably snapped in the wind, and he brought candles, and blankets from his spare bed to heap on her. It wasn’t that he was afraid of death. He had once been a medical examiner’s assistant for the Navy. He’d touched it, handled it, held. But in the Navy that was all he did, he didn’t watch the people die, they came to him after, unmoving objects, pieces to his job. He’d never watched it, just waited for it.

Mormor didn’t talk for a long time, until she said it was hot, and he fanned her face with a magazine and she fell asleep. Mormor, he said, but she didn’t wake up again. He could hear the storm, and the wind, and the snow pelting the house. She was breathing, slowly, in and out, in and out, and then, toward the morning, the room getting lighter, the candles melted all the way down, she only breathed in. And he noticed that the wind, too, had finally stopped. The dog, sleeping next to her, kept breathing in and out. He held her hand an hour more, until the sun rose.

He looked out. Even though the bedroom was on the second story, the snow had drifted high against the house, swooping over the eve of the roof, blocking part of the window. Everything was flat and endlessly white. The glare hurt his eyes. Sun dog rainbows circled the sun. It made him think of an old joke from when he was a kid: North Dakota is so flat that that you can sit on your porch and watch your dog run away for three days.

He slid the windowsill up an inch. It was surprisingly easy, and he thought it would have been frozen, stuck, the wood swollen from the weather, the winter. The air was cold, very cold, which is what he wanted even though he worried about the house, the pipes. It was probably way below zero. Much too cold for more snow. There, Mormor, he said, you’ll keep until spring. He looked at her a little longer, stood next to her, and then called the dog. The dog jumped off her bed, where he’d slept through everything. Max left her bedroom, took a candle, shut the door, and went down to the basement.

Mormor’s dog followed him. The basement was dark, the windows covered with snow, the power still out. He held the candle up. He hadn’t been down there in years, but it seemed to be the same. One of the walls held shelves of Mormor’s preserves: apple butter, rhubarb jam, chokecherries, sweet pickles. Another corner held coal. He went to a corner stacked with crates and boxes and found his grandfather’s wooden cross-country skis. The tips had painted red snowflakes and the skis hadn’t been used for years, he knew this, but he was sure they’d be OK. He sat on the floor, putting the candle carefully next to him, and looked them over. The dog sat down, too, and went back to sleep. The skis were sticky from pine tar, worn down, the three-pin bindings looked fragile. He stood up, rummaged, and found a can of wax, the poles, and his grandfather’s old ski boots. Yes, he thought, what else can I do?

He carried the skis and the poles and the boots up to the kitchen and got ready to leave. He tried the phone again, but it was still dead. He waxed the skis, put a sweater on the dog, a little sweater that Mormor had knitted. It had little red snowflakes, just like the skis. He remembered asking her once, as a boy, what red snowflakes meant. Sometimes, she’d said, a red snowflake is just a red snowflake. Not everything means something, she’d said. In fact, she’d said, most things in life mean hardly anything at all.

He ate a sandwich and fed the dog. The photo album was still on the table, where he’d left it. In the kitchen drawer he found a pen, and opened the album to the ledgers, and wrote in ballpoint blue: Rose Viola Oliversen, Born September 14, 1875 — Died February 9, 1956. He put on two pairs of pants, and over the blue sweater he added three more he had brought with, and three pairs of socks, his coat, his gloves, his scarf, everything, but when he tried the kitchen door it was blocked by snow. The front door was worse, and finally he settled on crawling through the sitting room window, putting first the skis out, and then the dog, and then he crawled out himself and shut the window. The snow was soft, his feet sunk, and he plowed his way to a clear space of yard between two large drifts. The dog followed behind him, panting. He tried to see his parked car, but it was buried, a mound, just a pile of snow. The sky was very blue. The coldest days, he knew, were sunny ones.

While he sat and put on the skis, the dog peed against the drift, marking the house, and then came and stood next to him. Max picked it up and settled it into his coat, the dog’s warm body against his own. Christ, he told the dog, it’s cold, but what else can we do? He said this in English, which surprised him, and he quickly tried to think of the Norwegian words for skis, snow, dog, red, but the words didn’t come. He wasn’t sure the dog knew English. Isn’t that funny, he thought. So he stood, tested the skis, and when he was sure they’d hold, he set off toward the tall shelterbelts of poplars, the only things that stood out against all that white and marked his trail to the Pedersen farm.