The Winter Cabin

 

BY MATTHEW CALDWELL

 

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This place is a picture postcard, and if it were up to me, I wouldn’t be here.

The snow is thick and sticky, and it hangs off the bare tree branches at the creek the way the carnies used to twist cotton candy at the fair. Thick and sugary sweet.

I hate it.

Because that’s not a reality. This is. What’s happening inside this cabin. Not the mountains or the trees or the quaint logging road that disappears down the way like a frightened snake into a woodpile. I can’t believe, in any of those lodges you see, that there are two people who are there for the same purpose we are.  

“Are you going to finish unpacking?”

Sadie’s question only startles me slightly. After forty-nine years together there aren’t a lot of surprises anymore. No good ones anyway. She comes out of the bedroom and joins me at the front of the room, finding a narrow spot between me and the window. There’s no need for me to move to look around her. Whereas once her body struck me as a lusty yell of womanhood, now it’s only a whisper.  

“I just wanted to look outside,” I say. It was the truth. I wanted to see this place, fake as it was to me, a place putting on airs that existed for only an instant, before we finished what we needed to do and the image was soured for me forever.

“It was always so beautiful here, in the winter. It’s why I chose it.” She insinuates herself under my arm, and suddenly we are hugging in the spare winter sunlight. It will be dark soon, and the mountains make that sooner still, and we will go to bed together and sleep entwined one more time.

Suddenly she seems to sense the subtext of her statement. “Do you think you will ever come back here?”

“Probably not.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It was always more your place, anyway.” I try not to be short with her.

She looks out the window again, except now she nuzzles her head into the crook between my shoulder and torso. I’m seven inches taller than she is, and this is her favorite place to stand, where the top of her head drifts just underneath my nostrils. She used to have silky white hair that had a sheen that glided across her crown every time she nodded or threw it back to laugh. Today she’s wearing a pink bandana over what’s left. After her first treatment, it just doesn’t have the same life to it.  

She turns to me and smiles. The apples of her cheeks are long gone, though the bones are still there, projecting out from behind freckled flesh that is somehow both wrinkled and pulled tight. With a brush of her hand on my shoulder, she leaves me and goes back into the bedroom to finish unpacking. I watch her through the door as she hangs up a long flowered dress. She bought it just before we came, waiting until the last moment because she wanted to be sure it would fit.

We honeymooned here, in this cabin, and if I close my eyes I can still see the sheen that existed then, on everything in our lives. We got married on Valentine’s Day, raced out of Portland, and got here just as a snowstorm was starting. We couldn’t leave for a week, but we had firewood and canned food and each other. It was perfect. We came back every tenth year, but she didn’t want to limit our time to merely the winter. She was as in love with the place in August as she was in February.

With her, there was always a lot of love to go around, although even she would admit that she overdid it from time to time. And when she couldn’t admit it herself, I was forced to confront her about it. It happened before.

“I’m going to start making dinner,” I finally say to her.

***

She likes salmon, and it stinks up the cabin to holy hell, but I can’t say no. There are only three rooms in the cabin—the bathroom, bedroom, and a large living area with no separation between the kitchen and family room. As I cook, I catch her on my periphery. She sits curled up in the big chair, doing a crossword puzzle, and she smirks the entire time like she knows a secret. Maybe she realizes I’m watching her.

“I just want mine kissed by the heat,” she tells me. “Just a little smooch.”

“How about I just describe the inside of the oven to the filets,” I say. I try to act like she’s trying my patience, but she sees through that.

“Would you?” She smiles, and this time she isn’t trying to hide it.

“Just get in here before it somehow gets colder.”

She joins me at the table, flicking her napkin with her wrist before dropping it to the floor, a grimace replacing her smile. I move around the corner of the table as quickly as my geriatric reflexes will allow.

“It’s okay,” she says, but a tear betrays her. “At least it’s the same pain. Not that it matters.” I place the napkin back in her hand and squeeze it, just enough to let her know I’m here.

“We can’t say it doesn’t matter,” I tell her. “We just can’t.”

She nods at me. We both understand. Even though we’ve both been to the cabin so many times, we’ve never been here before. But we have to understand. She knows it’s important to me.

She takes advantage of me being below her for once to kiss me on top of the head. “Come on, now,” she whispers. I dutifully return to my seat so we can finish our dinner.

***

Later we lie in bed, listening to the fire crackling in the next room. Outside, the moon reflects off all that damn snow, and even I have to admit the blue-white light that comes in through the window is beautiful. It illuminates the paneling on the walls and the oak beams that span the ceiling. All the wood caused me to call this place a coffin the first time I saw it. I cringe at the thought, now.

I can hear her holding her breath ever so slightly, a tic that emerges when she’s in deep thought. “Can you tell me what you’re thinking?” I ask.

“I’m not religious, you know that.”

“I do.”

“But I can feel myself drifting that way.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“I just thought I knew, you know? I always thought I’d looked at it from every angle.”

“What do you think now?”

“Now I still don’t know. But I hope there’s something there, on the other side. I want you to be there.”

I wait before I respond. I don’t agree, necessarily, about the afterlife, but who am I to deny her perspective? I’m a man of science, and although science and religion can live together, it just doesn’t, in my mind. “I think we make our own heavens,” I tell her. I’m not sure it makes her feel any better.

She makes a contented sound and again nestles into me. There are no birds in the winter, no bugs, just the popping from the fireplace and her deepening breaths as she falls asleep in my arms.

***

We wake up early. I offer her breakfast, but she turns me down. Mornings are difficult for her, with the timing of the medications, and she doesn’t want to spend our last day here doubled over the toilet. She lies in bed just as the sun comes up. Slow but steady drips of water trickle off the roof.

“Do you want some coffee?”

“I don’t want to get jittery,” she says, mournfully. “I’m already on edge, as it is.”

And what an edge it is. I pour myself a cup and drink it as I sit next to her. “Looks like we’ll get some sun today. Roads should be clear.”

“I hope so.” Again she worries, visibly. “I can’t help but think that choosing this place was a mistake.”

I place my coffee on the nightstand and sidle up next to her in bed. My spot had already cooled off in the minutes I’d been gone. But sometimes that happens, I guess. “I don’t feel that way.”

“But what if they can’t get up here?” she begins. “What if you’re forsaken here with me for a week? What will you do? Maybe I’ve made a mistake. My stupid, selfish hubris.” She’s always fallen back on her vocabulary when she doesn’t know what else to say.

I can feel her trembling beside me, and although I hold her closer it doesn’t help her to stop. She’s right, of course. We have everything timed out, because we are doing things on her terms, but if nature chooses not to cooperate she’ll be gone and I’ll be here and I can’t help but think it’ll be a nightmare.

“Well, what do you think?” she asks.

I pause to gather my thoughts, but I don’t wish to make her wait too long for the answer. “Do you remember when we found out you were pregnant with Julia, and we made all these plans about picking a hospital, and packing a bag, and finding the perfect name…”

She finishes my sentence. “…and then she was born five weeks early.”

“She turned out okay, right?”

“Did she?”

Julia and her mother had their differences, but Julia has, empirically, indeed turned out okay. Sadie just wants to be assured. “Of course. I think you know that.”

“But I won’t be around to protect her. I won’t be here to give her a hug when she’s hysterical at Emily graduating high school.”

“But you’ve made her into a woman. And will anything that happens today change that?” I ask.

“No,” she says, spitting the word out of her mouth. She looks at her hands, bruised and veiny. “Goddamn this disease.”

Drip. Drip. Drip.

***

I heard her get up a few times during the night. I would have advocated for her to take her sleeping pill, to get some decent sleep, but who am I to deny the woman another few hours of consciousness?

After we both rise, I go to the kitchen and turn on the coffee pot. She tells me to wait in the Great Room, and again I find myself looking out the window toward the creek because there’s just nothing else to do. When we were younger—more vibrant, I suppose—we would gear up and take a walk through the obnoxiously pristine trails that crawled through the woods. There was a path to the bridge by the creek, another path over the ridge to the lake, and even one for the more industrious among us that spit you out near the top of the mountain where you could see the lights of Portland if it was clear enough that night. It was here, nine years ago, that I first noticed something was wrong—when she began to turn me down even on the shorter walks. I persuaded her to go to the doctor when we got back home and she was told for the first time about the cancer in her breast.

“Do you know what bothers me the most?” she asked me the first time they were hooking her up to the chemotherapy. “It’s wondering about the nature of this. Did I do something to cause it? Or was it always my fate to have it?”

I didn’t have an answer.

Because she is stubborn she beat that cancer, and for a few years we lived in the halcyon days of remission, but two months ago the doctor called us in for another “hard talk” and said that it was in her bones now.

And I think we both couldn’t help but feel that it was fate, now.

“Every instance is different,” he began optimistically, because he had to. Because that’s what they’re taught to do. He spoke with all the charm of dry toast. “But the prognosis for your form of cancer isn’t terribly positive.”

“How ‘not terribly positive’?”

“Four to six months.” He had a golf game after this. I could see it on the calendar on his big, wooden desk where he sat and practiced how to sound like he cared.

“Will it be painful?”  

“Yes. But we have medications to remediate the pain.” He sat back, satisfied. He knew why she was asking. How could he not have known? But he couldn’t suggest it himself.

Of course, the logical extension of the statement is that if you took enough of those medications, your pain would leave forever. I know she thought of that the same time I did, but I chose to wait until she brought it up herself. It took a week.

“I want to do it at the cabin,” she said, ignoring the idea of laying out context for an argument and instead choosing to speak of it as a foregone conclusion. I didn’t care for her phrasing.

“The winter cabin?” I asked, as if we had all types of cabins for all types of occasions.

“It will be picturesque up there, assuming we can get to it.”

That’s when I first thought of it: not getting there, but getting away if it snowed. I saw how much she had considered her choice and I kept my mouth shut. That was my affliction: I held my tongue when I disagreed with her, even if it was to my detriment.

“We’ll make it work,” I said.

I’m brought back to the present when I see a squirrel run down the side of a tree. It roots around in the snow, looking for a nut. He apparently thought he knew where it was when he left the safety of the branches, but now he knows he’s mistaken. He stands there for a moment. His hair stands up on his back. He either senses a predator or he’s just pissed off at his situation. It’s obvious he has no contingency. Life is really hard when you don’t have a plan.

***

She comes out a little later, wearing her long, flowery dress. It still didn’t fit her but I wouldn’t tell her that. It was a striking shade of blue, carefully chosen because it highlighted the only part of her that still had any life. I always told her that her eyes looked the way the night sky does around the moon. She always told me that I was no good as a poet.

“I didn’t want anything too bright,” she says, posing beguilingly in the doorway. “I already look like a ghost, without my clothes betraying me, too.” She pauses at the end of the sentence. I can tell that she added the “too” without wanting to. We’re not allowed to talk about the disease today.

“You look wonderful,” I say. And I mean it. Physically, she’s not much of what she used to be. She’s skin and bones, and the skin is bruised and the bones are broken.

But today she has a spirit. I don’t want to say “a peace,” because I can sense the turmoil that she’s trying to hide with a vivid dress, but there’s a conviction there that only someone on a righteous path can own.

“You just say that because you’re my husband.”

I walk across the room and pull her in with a gentle embrace. “I say it because I mean it. I’ll always be your husband.”

I wonder if that makes her think of the first time I told her that. The time I felt I had to say it.

She pulls away from me and holds up her hand, unwrapping her knotty fingers to show me what she’d brought with her from the city yet had kept hidden until that moment.

Her doctor told her that secobarbital was effective, while still being relatively painless. “I’m not afraid of the pain,” she told him. “But I don’t want to put my husband through the sight of it. I don’t want his last image of me to be a woman begging for death, but someone accepting of it.”

The doctor licked his lips. “I can’t guarantee that, at high doses, you won’t have a reaction. I’m sorry, I just can’t guarantee it. I can, however, assure you that it will work.”

She looked at me, then reached for my hand. “Is there anything about this that can be easy?” The question was rhetorical. Her sentiment was not.

Life is hard, I thought at the time. That’s what makes it worth it. So dying should be hard as well. I didn’t tell her this.

Slowly the cabin comes back to me. I want to stay in the moment. For her, yes, but also because I’m intrigued by the whole situation. I would assume that men of science have trouble keeping their curiosity separate from their love, but it’s all so interesting. The world is interesting. Scientist or not, how can a person not sit around every day in awe of why everything is happening?

She pulls away and guides me with her open hand until we’re sitting on the bed. On her nightstand sits a glass of water and a line of little pills. For what it meant, she may as well have put a pistol on her pillow.

“It’s funny,” she says.

“What is?”

“Last night, when I was walking around, I stopped thinking of how fragile my life is and chose to think about how vigorous it is, instead.”

“Really?” I was more surprised at her thinking than of the idea itself.

“I mean, how many ways can a person die? There are ten million things in our lives every day that can end us—like a car wreck or falling down the stairs or choking on our supper—and a vast majority of them just don’t. A huge majority. And if you play that out to everyone in our family line that had to beat those odds just for us both to be here, in this cabin at this moment…” she stops. She hasn’t been this excited in months. “It is fate. That’s all that can explain it.”

I look at her, sitting on the bed in her new dress, and I want to tell her that it only seems like fate because she’s reading everything backwards. Destiny only works if you read it left to right, the way that time travels. It wasn’t fate that stole that acorn away from that squirrel yesterday, it was poor planning. It was hiding it in a place that he couldn’t find again, or placing it in too shallow a hole and letting another squirrel take it from him.

I shake my head. I want to stay with her but it’s difficult. I’m a man of science.

She lies on the bed and I follow her. I’m tired. I’ve carried her for so long.

“Sadie,” I say, “why did you go with Tom?”

I can see the betrayal in her eyes. Maybe it’s surprise. It’s tough to tell.

“I—” she begins. I can tell she doesn’t want to cry. She holds her breath again. “I told you then. I tricked myself. I convinced myself that Tom was some sort of reality that he wasn’t.”

“Reality…isn’t just one frame of film,” I say. It doesn’t make any sense to her. “I don’t know if I can let you do it without telling you. I don’t know if I ever forgave you.”

She rubs her skeletal hand across my cheek. “I know,” she says. She gives up on trying to stifle the tears. “But do you still love me?”

I don’t hesitate, though my words come out like molasses. “I never stopped…that’s why I fought to get you back.”

She kisses me on the lips. Now I hold my breath because I don’t want to suck out any of her life.

When I go to kiss her back I realize what my problem is, why I’m drawing out my words and why I can’t stay focused: I’m falling asleep.

She knows that I know. “I’m sorry,” she says in a whisper. “I got a couple of extra pills. I didn’t know why at the time. I don’t want you to see me suffer any more. Just enough to make you dream. I just wanted to go to sleep with you one more time.”

I’m trying but I can’t stay with her. She smiles because I always made her smile. She’s still smiling when she says, “When it’s time, I’d like it very much if you’d leave your heaven to come over to mine.”

It’s Sunday. It’s March. The snow is white and our hair is white and everything is scrubbed and pure and new again.


Matthew Caldwell is a MFA Creative Writing candidate at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.  His first novel, The Lost Tribe, was a Kindle Scout winner and named as one of the Shelf Unbound Magazine’s Top 100 Notable Books of the Year.  You can follow him on Twitter (@mattlcaldwell) and Facebook.  He is left-handed, so please bear with him.

Image Credit: “Small Cabin made with Cut Lumber” by Harvey & Marie Sanborn/Capbell

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