Winter's Night, from Salt
She woke suddenly from a dream, but could not remember it, only an impression of something terrible and ordinary, farm lot butchery perhaps. Or had she struck someone because she was commanded to when she meant to resist the order? How easy in this world to unintentionally afflict the weak, even in one's sleep. She lay quiet, trying to hear if there were anything abroad in the house or yard. John breathed heavily beside her and she eased away so she could hear something besides his breath, listened for the creaks of the house timbers, possible rats in the kitchen.
How strange and trusting folk were to all go to sleep at the same time, daylight creatures giving themselves over to dreams at nightfall and not even setting a guard.
Beside the bed, Maud was snug in the snowflake pattern blanket Tempe knitted for her and bundled in the cradle, a wondrously good baby, already sleeping through. Across the room the two youngest boys lay in their bed against the wall, their covers slipping sideways toward the floor. Oh, angels, it was cold as she slid out from under the heavy pile of quilts. The floor felt as if it were layered with frost. A little later and a little lighter into the morning and she could have seen her own breath in the air.
She often did not sleep through the night. She would tell them the next morning, "I woke in the night and couldn't go back to sleep," and they would look at her as if she spoke in an exotic language, one they hoped never to have to learn. John would drop off when his head hit the pillow and seldom rouse. She woke to prowl the house alone.
She dragged the covers back over Leonard and Spencer. Their sleeping faces were only dim disks in the darkness. Spencer's hair was damp. Another illness? Please, no. He was the most ailing of her children, would hang head-down over the kitchen stool with a pain in his stomach for what seemed hours at a time. She wormed him thoroughly, but it didn't seem to do any good. A chill crossed her shoulders and went down the back of her neck. But her little son's forehead felt cool and her alarm subsided. She thought of seeing to the others as well, but Art and Roland slept in the overhead eave room now and her step on the stairs was likely to wake them, well, wake Art anyway. Roland slept like his father.
In the front room the fireplace smelled of damp ashes as if cold had entered the house by dropping down the chimney. Clock ticks were sharp in the silence and she felt rather than saw the golden pendulum swing behind the golden cranes standing one-legged among the gold reeds on the glass door.
Tea, she thought, and went back to the kitchen. Chamomile, with honey and milk to help her sleep. But under her hand the eyes of the cook stove were so cold her flesh seemed to freeze to them and the kindling box was nearly empty. She took a match from the box on the wall anyway, thinking perhaps to light the lamp, warm her fingers by it. But a light in the house and she could be seen from outside.
In all the dark and drowsing valley she was the only one awake. Or was she? Another night she had seen far down below a light flicker from room to room at Leftwich's, a poor light, as from an ill-trimmed lamp wick or a guttering candle. Did he too prowl his house at night, counting and checking his small store of goods, noting how very little he had sold?
As she moved her gown caught between her thighs below her belly not yet flat after Maud's delivery. She passed again through the front room on her way back to bed and took up her shawl from the chair where she had left it.
Then something said to her, plain as speaking, Go to the window.
Under clear icy starshine and a three-quarter moon the familiar valley stretched away, following the stream in its course to where it curved off in the distance and was hidden behind the farthest slopes. She brought out one of the heavy stools from the kitchen table, set it by the window and seated herself on it, pulling the shawl tight at her chin and resting her elbows on the sill. It was so cold outside and in the room her breath barely fogged the glass.
She gave herself to a night's beauty, stark and indefinite all at once. And terrifying. The snow that still rested in places on the upper northern slopes seemed to move and quiver like a drift of white birds about to rise in flight. The narrow valley floor had a dark meandering snake line where Cove Creek slipped by, thick in places with black bulges of willow bushes and elder, as if the snake had eaten.
The heavy woods seemed to be sliding downward with their weight of shadow, while the cleared fields, edged in brush rows or jagged fences, were motionless and still. She was looking too hard, she told herself. That was what was unsettling the landscape, making things seem to move when they did not, causing her to be uncertain whether or not she saw something dart by on the road below. Only she and other live things and the stars wheeling by were truly on the move. She looked upon their brilliance. In school she had heard of celestial navigation and the workings of a sextant, ways to use the stars for the profit of man, but that did not tell where they came from or what they were really for, if indeed they had any purpose beyond being. Latitudes and calculations to the sixth part, they could take one around the globe and never reveal anything that was an answer.
Somewhere in the night a fox was on his way home over the hills, carrying in his mouth something still warm that had been unwary enough to stir forth into the dark. He was taking food to his mate to nourish the kits stirring in her. She saw no fox but knew he had been there and was now moving away from her. She sighed and shifted. There are little murders every night, she thought. And she thought of men and women and their terrible hungers for one another, how, in spite of anger and arguments, John could still make her tremble, remembered the vague pleasures she gave herself when he was not there, thought how her own children had moved inside her.
And there was something out there. It approached. Coming in darkness and the palest of light. Something with no shape, no name, no sound, only presence, still out there beyond the bend but roused, perhaps by her watching, and on the move. She turned away quickly from the window. Her legs were heavy with the sudden fall of blood away from her heart. They did not want to carry her weight.
Her eyes accustomed to the outside, she could hardly see at all in the darker room. She made out the gun on its rack above the door, useless against what she sensed. She fled back to bed where she shivered for a long time against the angle of John's shoulder and his strong body.
"I could scare myself to death," she whispered to his back.
She dreamed and told herself a story.