The last of the families were leaving.
Clara looked out the wide windows that opened onto the small lawn with the crunchy brown grass. Their little white house stood humbly, precariously at the feet of the purple-grey mountains that stopped somewhere up in the clouds.
Clara looked out the window and watched. She watched as the da Silva children climbed into the family’s red minivan. She watched Mrs. da Silva strap the sleeping baby into its baby seat, and Mr. da Silva slam the trunk door down. She watched him pull at the taut bungee cords holding big suitcases onto the roof of the van and then, with his mouth set in a sombre line, look at the house while the wife finished strapping the baby in. Clara imagined her tears falling onto the baby’s soft, chubby sleeping face. Then they both got into the van and drove down the street. Clara waved as they drove by, but she didn’t think that they saw her, as she didn’t see them wave back.
Clara sighed and looked up at the low, darkening sky, at the thick grey clouds rolling angrily into themselves. She could hear airplanes shooting by above the house, so low she felt the tables and the floor and the windowpanes tremble, but she couldn’t see them. More cars drove by the white house with an exigency that made Clara sigh again. She wished she was in the red minivan with the da Silva children, driving away from their soon-to-be empty village, but they hadn’t asked her to come with them, and she couldn’t leave her mother.
The darkening sky turned the sidewalk, the fences, and the houses whiter and brighter than they really were, unblemished and pure. A hot wind ran down the grey mountains behind the little house and pushed at it most unceremoniously, seeping into the house with howls and groans, making everything rattle.
“How about a cup of tea, dear?” the mother asked warmly, folding a worn pink cord-knit sweater. Clara cast a doleful glance at the sweater in the mother’s hands as she jumped off the seat and went to the kitchen. Hearing a clanging and banging of pots, the mother smiled benignly – she imagined Clara with her little chubby hands trying to get the kettle out from amidst a great many iron and stainless-steel things, things as big as she probably was. Something fell with a whoosh and a wobble and a smash and the mother thought that it must be a dropped baking sheet and she chuckled to herself.
Clara came back with a teacup printed with watercolour cabbage roses and set it on a small table near her mother.
“Come now, Clara,” her mother said with feigned admonition, smiling despite herself. “You know I can’t.”
Clara frowned. “Yes, mama,” she said and lifted the cup to her mother’s lips. The mother blew softly at the steaming tea and slurped cautiously. Her hands continued to fold the worn sweater.
The next day, Clara didn’t watch any other families leave. They had all gone. It had begun to snow overnight. It fell heavily and urgently, cascading straight down from the grey sky. But every now and then, a strong gust of wind would come rushing down the grey mountains and drive the snow violently away from the house. Clara sat by the window hugging her knees and resting her chin on her arm. She put her forehead against the glass, but jerked it back right away: the glass was ice cold and rattling in the frame because of the wind, because of the airplanes.
A gale left a small snow tornado spinning wildly on the lawn, and Clara watched as it eventually spun away, dissipating into the whiteness that had quickly enveloped the village. All that could be seen of the da Silva house now were the red shutters on the two front windows, but even they were being erased by the snow.
In the whiteness before her, Clara saw a darkness grow. She leaned her face close to the window and screwed her eyes tight to focus. The darkness grew until it emerged as a tall figure, coming toward the house. It moved strangely and smoothly, gliding over the snow.
“Clara, dear, how about a cup of tea?” the mother hummed. But Clara didn’t hear.
Clara watched the dark figure grow, grow the way a drop of watery paint blooms on a white canvas. She didn’t know she had her forehead pressed against the cold glass until a shiver ran down her back.
“Clara? Are you okay?” the mother asked in a singsong voice.
“There’s someone coming, mama.”
“I wonder who it could be.”
The figure was close enough now that Clara could see that it was a man. A man on skis. He stopped in front of their house where the sidewalk ought to have been. Clara thought the sidewalk was perhaps still there under the snow, but perhaps it had been blown away.
The man looked up at the little white house standing rebelliously at the feet of the mountains; half-buried in snow, its chimney smoking cozily and sleepily. The house made him think of a man he’d once seen: he was small and round, sat warm and comfortable in front of his fire after a luxurious feast, smoking a big fat cigar, all the while a cancer – one he was not ignorant of – ate away at his insides. He looked in at the window and Clara ducked. The man stepped over the picket gate sunken in snow, and skied toward the front door.
“Mother, he’s at the door,” Clara said with alarm, just as the doorbell chimed.
“Well, let the poor man in, Clara. He must be frozen.”
Clara jumped off her window seat and went to the door. She only opened it a crack at first, but when she saw that the man’s cheeks were an ominous blood red and that he was shivering violently, she opened the door wider. He came into the house, skis still on, and with him came the snow that had piled up against the door.
“Hurry, Clara! Close the door. You’re letting the heat out.” Clara slammed the door shut against the snow, scurried to her mother and knelt on the floor behind the chair she sat in. They both looked at the stranger with inquisitive eyes.
The man wore a black panama hat that he’d tied a scarf around so that it covered his ears. The lower half of his face was stuffed into the fur collar of a frockcoat, which he began unbuttoning with his gloved hands. He then took off his backpack and bent down to unfasten his skis. His backpack was one of those that people used to take with them camping, with a sleeping bag rolled up on top. He left the skis and his bag by the entrance, along with his boots, and walked over to the mother and Clara in his woolen socks and a wide grin, all the while unwrapping the scarf around his head.
“Wow, it sure does feel strange to smile when your face is frozen,” he boomed in a big, jovial voice. “I am smiling, aren’t I?” He touched his face to check, then took off the hat and sat down on the overstuffed pink loveseat in front of them, uninvited.
Clara stared at his shiny red face and his blond curly hair matted down onto his wide sweaty forehead. The man took off his gloves and flexed his fingers, holding them up for the mother and Clara to see.
“You see, almost frostbitten. Lucky I found this house; I’m sure I would have died out there.”
“How did you find us, uh?” the mother trailed off questioningly, hoping the man would chime in with his name.
“Hobbes is the name,” he said affably, picking up the mother’s trail. “James Hobbes.”
“How do you do, Mr. Hobbes? My name is Sara, and this is my daughter Clara.” The mother nodded at Clara, who didn’t say anything. She felt shy in front of this stranger. The man saw her cheeks turn red and this made him smile.
“She is adorable,” he said. “I do love children so.”
The mother beamed – she was always glad to hear her darling daughter complimented. “Thank you, sir,” she said with a bow of her head, then remembered her question. “Mr. Hobbes, how did you find us? I only ask because there are so many small houses around and it’s so white outside one can hardly see one’s nose, let alone Clara sitting by the window. Or, I imagine that’s how bad the storm is – we haven’t been outside much, you see.”
The man watched the mother, still smiling. He watched her fold, then unfold, then fold again a timeworn pink sweater. “Yes,” he mused. “It is quite bad. I could hardly see the roads as I drove over them.” He took out a pipe from his coat pocket. “My car broke down not too far from this house, and I had no choice but to continue on foot. Luckily I had my skis in the trunk. To be honest, I got rather lost when I left the car. All that white gets disorienting.” He took out a brown leather pouch from somewhere within his coat and started filling up the pipe. “I felt myself saved almost by a miracle when I looked up and saw your chimney’s smoke. I just went toward the smoke; smoke in this cold could only mean people.” He gave them a grin so warm and charming that Clara could swear she saw his blue eyes twinkle.
“The chimney?” the mother asked, looking at Clara confusedly.
“I left the stove burning, mama. To keep us warm, just like you asked,” Clara said quietly and with eyes lowered.
“Oh yes, I forgot.” The mother smiled at the man. There was a moment of silence between them, and then – after a short while – the mother whispered with a hint of bemusement, “a miracle.”
She shook her head solemnly, and then looked up at the red-faced man. He was watching her intently.
“A figure of speech,” he said.
“Clara, how about some tea?” the mother asked. Clara went to the kitchen. The man took out a box of matches and lit his pipe. “How bad are things out there, Mr. Hobbes?” The mother kept her eyes lowered to her folding. “We haven’t a radio, all the phone lines are down. And our neighbours have already left. What exactly is going on?”
The man crossed his legs and took a long pensive drag at his pipe. “Well, they say there is to be a very bad and long snow storm. A blizzard. With these winds I don’t doubt it.”
“A blizzard, you say? Do you think this will be the extent of it?” she asked, nodding toward the whiteness outside the window.
“Oh no, I believe it’s to get much worse.” He narrowed his eyes. “I’ve heard people say that there will be an earthquake, too, that the earth will open up and swallow us all. Some, those with an especially primitive proclivity, even say it’s the end of the world,” he said with a wicked grin. “But I have it on good authority that it’s to be a severe and lengthy snow storm.” He stared off into the distance, chewing on his pipe. “Yes, it will get much worse.”
A strong wind hit the house and whistled in through the cracks in the walls and window frames. The old house creaked and moaned. The man looked around him at the small cozy room. There were pictures in frames mounted all over the walls, even down low near the floor. Black and white pictures, technicolour and yellowed pictures, some he thought were daguerreotypes. They were all pictures of solemn-faced people sitting in front of nondescript settings, or standing in front of houses, both individually and in groups.
“What do you do, Mr. Hobbes?” the mother asked without looking up at him.
The man watched her fold and chewed on his pipe. “I’m a professor,” he said finally.
The mother’s eyes widened. “A professor? Why, that sounds very exciting. Of what?”
“Fascinating,” the mother said with her mouth agape. “Do you teach at the university down south?”
“Yes. In fact, that’s where I’m coming from. I’m on my way to my family and friends. They’re in an underground shelter up north. It’s supposed to be not too far from where my car broke down. I had hoped I’d stumble upon it skiing, but here we all are.”
“Why, I didn’t even know they had arranged for shelters,” the mother said with noticeable anxiety.
“Yes, a lot have gathered there.” He watched her fold for some time, then cleared his throat. A gust of wind stronger than any before slammed against the house. “You know, I was really surprised to find you two here. You should get out of this house. Why don’t you come with me? With those mountains there is great danger of an avalanche – and if not an avalanche, then the storm will surely bury the house.”
“Well, we do have some supplies stored in the kitchen. I had the neighbour boy, Alfred, leave us some things before he left with his family a couple of days ago,” the mother said pacifyingly, trying to mollify an insistence that hadn’t yet entered the man’s tone.
A loud crack reverberated through the house, making things fall over in the kitchen with crashes and bangs. Clara ran back into the room.
“Mama, everything’s fallen over. It’s all a mess!”
The man got up and looked around. Outside, clouds of snow blew forward away from the house, while more snow fell down in irregular bunches as though being dumped by a human hand. “We need to get out of here,” he said urgently. Clara smiled when he said “we”. The man ran into the kitchen and came back with some water bottles and a few cans of soup and fruit. He looked down at the mother. She had her head bowed down low and was folding and unfolding and folding again the worn pink cord-knit sweater.
“Why does she keep on doing that?” He asked Clara as he began loading his bag.
“She’s what?” He turned and looked at the mother more attentively. “What do you mean she’s stuck?”
“In the movement,” Clara said, skipping over to the closet near the front door and getting out both her and her mother’s coats.
“Come on, get up,” he said over his shoulder to the mother as he zipped up his bag. “We’ve got to go.”
“I can’t stop,” the mother whispered. She looked up at him with her tear-spattered face. “I’m stuck.”
“It’s a hereditary thing,” Clara said, moving to her mother’s side with their coats, taking her time with the word “hereditary.”
“You guys need to explain to me what’s going on here and be quick about it. That mountain could bury us in snow miles high at any second and we’d spend the rest of our short lives trying to dig ourselves out. We need to get out of here.” He yanked on his panama hat, tapped out his pipe on the window sill and looked at them, waiting.
The mother continued folding. “My mother, and her mother, and her mother, going back how far I can’t say exactly. They all, at one point in their lives, got stuck in a movement. It happens sometimes late in life, or early, you don’t really know when, but it does happen to us. It could be any movement. You rearrange a painting on the wall, put a glass of water to your lips and drink, and you might never stop rearranging, or drinking. I just wanted to fold some laundry.” She laughed drily.
Clara, already bundled up, ran up to the man and thrust her head at him, pushing her hair behind her ears, showing him her earlobes. “See? I have these unattached earlobes, just like yours – they’re from my father. They mean that I won’t get stuck. The only way to not getting stuck in my family is to get unattached earlobes.” The man looked at Clara then at her mother, who was still folding and unfolding the sweater, then he looked at Clara again. “It’s kind of like a family curse,” Clara said.
Another crack roared through the house and it knocked some pictures off the walls. For a few seconds there was no sound but that of many tiny explosions of glass and the cracking of wooden frames.
“Okay you two, fun’s over. We need to leave, now,” the man commanded, shrugging on his backpack.
“Clara, dear, you have to be brave and go on without me,” the mother said in a soft voice.
Clara’s face fell. She ran to her mother and, with unsteady hands, picked up her mother’s coat. “Come on, mama,” she said fearfully, holding back sobs. “Get your coat on.”
“Darling, I can’t. You know I can’t stop. My earlobes,” the mother said, looking up at her with gentle eyes.
“That’s just a coincidence!” the man yelled impatiently. “You’ve forced a link between two unconnected, coincidental events just because they appeared together often. History overflows with instances of people making up explanations in this way for things because they did not yet have the means to rightly explain their occurrence, and then coming to find solace in these illusions, assuming them to abide universally. There have been people who thought that the shape of your feet, nose, or the colour of your hair pointed to your spiritual state. It was easier to determine who was a threatening other when a connection was forced between external features and spiritual states.”
The man had momentarily forgotten where he was. The mother’s bowed head and Clara’s confused and frightened eyes, her tear-streaked face, brought him back from a lecture hall. Feeling he’d bungled matters with his words, he cleared his throat and, hearing the storm grumbling outside, continued in a softer tone, trying to suppress the exasperation in his voice. “I promise that if you just get up and come with me, I will have a doctor friend of mine examine you at the shelter. She could tell you exactly and correctly what’s wrong with you.”
A clap of thunder tore through the house. The man’s heart jumped into his throat. He looked pleadingly at the mother still folding the sweater. The snow was coming now. The man could hear it. It was a heavy sliding sound, a low rumbling growing louder. The man ran to the mother and tried to pull her by her elbows out of her chair, but she was in an awkward position: she wouldn’t stop folding the sweater and she wouldn’t shift her weight to her feet. Her elbows slipped out of his hands and she fell to the ground. Clara screamed and wrapped her arms around her. But all the man heard was the snow coming for the house. He pulled Clara away from the mother and ran toward the door.
“Clara dear, you’ll be fine!” the mother called after them from the ground. “You be brave and go with Mr. Hobbes. I’ll wait for you to come back and get me. I’ll be right here!” The mother’s voice broke desultorily with sobs. Her tears fell silently onto the old pink cord-knit sweater that she continued to unfold and fold, even while the snow flew in through the windows and door.
Clara screamed and screamed as she was carried out of the house by the man, who was astounded by the strength he found in himself: he carried the child and his skis and ran through the snow with such speed that he was practically gliding over it, with such speed that his feet did not sink into the powdery snow.
He ran and ran, not falling over even once. He finally stopped when he reached a small hill. He turned around to see what had become of the little house that stood at the feet of the mountains, but there was nothing there – the mountains stood imperiously, and at their feet was white.
Clara had her arms wrapped around his neck, her face buried under his chin. She had been wailing all the while he ran and still she hadn’t stopped. Her face was wet. He put her down in front of him and knelt before her, peering into her dark eyes.
“Listen, we’ve got to keep moving or we’ll freeze.” She began sobbing silently then, not wanting him to yell at her and leave her behind in the cold. The man strapped the skis onto his own feet, then put the girl on them in front of him, facing him. “Put your arms around my waist and hold on.”
“I can’t hold on!” she yelled with her face pressed against his belly. Her arms were too small to get all the way around his waist.
He latched her hands onto the belt loops on his coat. “There, hold on to those.” With her small hands moist with sweat and balled around the loops, she held on for her dear life.
The man started to ski slowly. “Is that okay? Can you keep on like this?” he called down to her.
“Yes!” She yelled and he continued on.
He was skiing into the wind, into the snow that was trying its best to crumble them away. He recalled ancient myths that described the north wind as bringing the cold with it, and so he hoped with all this being that there was some truth to them and that he was going north.
Every now and then he would feel the girl’s face turn from left to right, or right to left. He looked down at her head, her hair was flying wildly about and she had her eyes squeezed shut. An image of her mother, calm and knowing as a saint, interminably folding that sweater, floated through his mind. He felt a pain at the pit of his stomach. “Stubborn old woman,” he thought. But tears streamed down his face. “It’s because of the wind,” he reasoned. Some tears froze on the tip of his nose, which he couldn’t feel anymore. The nose that he couldn’t feel ran like a faucet into his mouth and onto the fur collar into which his mouth was stuffed. He wished he could light his pipe.
They went on like this for some time. For exactly how long the man did not know. They were moving, he felt, in a pervasive and oppressive whiteness that had grabbed hold of their bones and would never allow them to escape. Sometimes he would bury his whole face into the fur collar and just go along skiing like that. “Just keep moving,” he kept on telling himself, over and over and over again. Sometimes, when he looked up, he would catch glimpses of the leftovers, of the things left behind: the handlebars of a bike peeking up through the snow, a half-submerged snow plow, a red minivan lying on its side with open suitcases strewn about, being gradually erased by the white.
After going on for some time with his face in his collar, he looked up and saw something that got his heart racing with pleasure. A large manor-like house emerged before them and he quickened his pace. The place resembled the plantations of the American antebellum South, which the man had seen only in pictures. He wondered what such a building could be doing here. There were tall white columns, and porches wrapped around both the ground and upper floors. But while the house might have once hosted lavish parties, it was now decrepit: some windows had black shutters slamming in the wind, others were boarded up. One of the two chimneys had fallen off, or had been knocked off. Much of the upper level of the house was covered in a great layer of snow, and the man thought for a moment that it wouldn’t be a good idea to go into the house, as the roof might cave in. But he felt the girl push her face into his belly to warm it, and he felt a great lack of feeling in his own face. So he climbed the couple of steps not yet submerged in snow up to the front door.
He reached for the knob but it pulled away before him, and a large blonde woman dressed in a grey military jacket faced him balefully. Her eyes moved slowly down him to the girl who still hugged him, and then to his skis. She considered the man before her for a while with lips pursed, then stepped aside and let him in. The man smiled gratefully and entered the dark, warm house.
He sat Clara on a stool near the doorway along with his bag while he took off his skis. The foyer opened precipitously onto a large forum-like room that went up the whole height of the house, with the second-floor balconies looking down upon it. The room was dimly lit by gasoline lamps strewn about sporadically, and by the white light coming in through the embossed glass panels set into the front door.
The place itself was filthy. In every corner that was illuminated by some light, the man could see piles of dust-covered statues that once might have been brilliant, various candelabra, paintings of important people and places, thick leather-bound books, heavy rugs, and gilded chalices. All these things seemed vaguely familiar to the man, reminded him of his studies of East and South Asian religions, of Middle Eastern religions.
He straightened up and took a closer look at the tall woman. She had a slight overbite, which made her look foreboding and which, combined with her stature, made her seem a great, wall-like power. From a dark corner within the forum came a cough.
Clara tugged at his hand. “I don’t like it here,” she whispered. “It’s so dark.”
“We have more light inside,” the woman said, motioning for them to go deeper into the house.
The man, not yet knowing whether he could trust the woman, picked Clara up in his arms and walked farther into the house. “Nice place you got here,” he said nervously, feeling the woman’s glare on his back. He had to squint to make out the dark figures in the shadows. Most were piles of objects that seemed lost, disoriented in a house such as this. The other figures the man couldn’t make out – they seemed to be something else entirely. The darkness, the things in shadows in a house that they didn’t seem to belong in, and the woman promising light set the man’s teeth on edge. He didn’t feel right about the house, but he didn’t want to let on that he didn’t feel right – his feared his unease might upset Clara, and both their being upset might upset the woman in the military jacket.
From a dark corner ahead emerged an emaciated-looking old man with a long metal walking stick that he had apparently just been polishing. He threw the rag that he had been rubbing against the stick to one side and spat after it with tobacco-coloured spit, then leered at the newcomers in an attempt to appear menacing. But when he spat he showed off teeth-less gums, and his whole body was askew, slanted to one side and away from a leg that seemed to be broken. He looked infirm and able to injure only with words. But a deft swing of that metal cane might do some serious damage.
The man stopped and his hold around Clara tightened. The woman continued ahead of him and went up to the old man and began whispering something to him. Clara had felt the man tense up and she looked around wide-eyed. “I don’t like it here,” she whispered again, this time into the man’s ear.
“It’s coming down really hard outside,” the man said, focusing his attention on the woman and old man. “Thanks for letting us in, we won’t stay too long. Just want to warm up.” He spoke in the most cordial and innocuous way he knew how, all smiles.
“Stay as long as you like,” the old man said in a shrill, wheezing voice.
“We’ve plenty of heat to go around,” the woman said, straight-faced.
“Really, we’ll just be a few moments. Just until we’ve warmed up.”
Something tinny rolled away in the darkness and a child’s giggling echoed through the forum. Clara shut her eyes tight and wished she could close her ears. She wanted to cry, but she heard her mother, in her beautiful voice, telling her to be brave. And so Clara swallowed her tears.
“Come,” said the woman walking ahead of them, leaving the old man behind. “I’ll take you to a room where you can rest.”
“That’s mighty kind of you,” said the man gregariously, following her.
“I must say, I was surprised to find you and your girl at my door. What were you thinking going out in that storm?”
“We’re on our way to a shelter. We’re going to meet my family there.” He let the woman assume Clara was his. He didn’t want to mention Clara’s mother, fearing he should make Clara cry if he did.
“A shelter?” the woman snorted. “Good luck getting there in this weather.”
There was a rank, mildew-y odour in the air, of ancient dust and musky sweat. As he followed the woman, the man looked around more circumspectly. All about them in the shadows stood dark, dense figures, but they didn’t move. If they were statues, their proportions were remarkably true to life. Some were as tall as he was, and some towered above him but not abnormally so. Each statue was different, or so it seemed to him as he passed from one silhouette to the next. Some had on elaborate headdresses, some wore great fancy column-like dresses, some had on tunics with billowing pants. The woman came to a stop in front of a wooden door.
“You’ll have to share this room, I’m afraid, but it shouldn’t be much of an inconvenience if, as you say, you won’t be staying long.” The man noticed that her words were pulled by a twang in her voice that was wholly unfamiliar to him.
“Sure, that would be just fine. I don’t know how I can thank you,” he said, smiling big.
The woman smiled for the first time and it was painful to see – the taut shiny skin of her face wrinkled as crepe paper does right before it rips, and she revealed small sharp teeth that glinted ominously in what light there was. The man wondered whether the smile was as painful for the woman to put on as it was to see. “Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” she said. “We all ought to stick together, help one another out.”
She opened the door and walked into the room. The man followed, still holding Clara tightly to his chest. Clara finally opened her eyes as they came into the light. She wanted to ask the man to loosen his hold of her, but she felt too afraid to speak, until she saw the baby.
The room was, like the forum, lit by gas lamps that cast shivering shadows across the walls and the ceiling, creating a strange, anxious wallpaper. It was a cluttered room. In the centre under an awning like a funeral canopy was a large, heavy-looking antique bed covered in a bedspread that, if it really had at one point been white, was probably the dirtiest bedspread the world had ever known. Huddled on the bed was a small blond baby, a muscular and balding man in a lambskin coat, and a pimply, scrawny boy with tawny hair. All three of them stared at the newcomers with expressionless, glazed eyes. The woman went and stood in front of the bed.
“These are the Pettits, they will be your roommates,” she said.
The man put Clara down next to him and started to unwrap the scarf that held his hat on his head. The girl walked shyly toward the baby. If the baby was safe, then she could be safe, too. And she hadn’t seen a baby since the da Silvas went away. She loved babies.
“His name is Thomas, would you like to hold him?” the balding man asked from the bed.
The girl nodded eagerly. The woman scooped up the baby and knelt down with him before the girl. “Look,” she said, lightly tugging at a chain around his chubby neck, “it’s a gold cross, have you ever seen its like?”
“A cross?” Asked the man, incredulously. “I didn’t think people still wore crosses.”
“You didn’t think, then,” the woman said, offended. “Gathered in this house you will find the very few people of faith who have survived years and years of persecution. True followers of Him we are,” she said with reverential awe. The balding man on the bed took on a similar air and clutched his neck, around which he too had a cross bound.
“You are rare, indeed,” the man said musingly. He put his hat down on a dusty table, next to a small plastic figure of a placid-looking woman in blue and white. “I’ve studied people like you, er, I mean, people of your religion – Christians. But I didn’t think any were left who still really believed,” the man went on, not meaning to be offensive, but truly curious and fascinated by the people before him. “I didn’t think any would think the faith still valid; it’s just such an outdated, contradiction-ridden concept now.” He smiled nonchalantly.
“Sir,” the woman said slowly, getting up with the baby still in her arms. Clara looked from her to the man and back again. The man on the bed seemed to tense up.
Mr. Hobbes, for the second time that day, felt he’d bungled matters with his words. He wished he could be with his family already. “I just mean that, with all the glaring inconsistencies that have been publicized over the years, the large-scale recognition of all the bad that has been done in the name of religion, all the advances in science, religion just doesn’t seem something that the logical people of today would – ”
“I beg your pardon, Sir!” the woman said loudly, her voice echoing back from the forum. “If you haven’t noticed,” the woman went on in a piqued voice, “the heathen, logical as you say, people of today are dying.”
“Well, that’s simply because of a storm, you see. And I’m sure most people are getting to safe shelter. And anyway, I am not just speaking of Christianity, of course, I mean all religions– ”
“That will be quite enough, sir!” the woman boomed. Clara ran and hid behind the man. The baby began to wail and the woman put him back on the bed. She narrowed her eyes and walked slowly up to the man. “Your ears,” she said. “Let me get a look at your ears.” She got a lamp and held it up to the man’s face. She grinned maniacally. “He’s got it,” she called back to the balding man on the bed. He laughed.
“Got what?” asked the man, stepping nervously away from the woman.
“Your earlobes,” she said, still grinning an eerie, joker-like grin. “They’re unattached. I knew there was something off about you.”
“I have those too!” Clara interjected from behind the man, proud to partake of the adults’ conversation. She tucked her hair back behind her ears so that the woman might get a better look.
“Lucius,” called the woman out into the hall, “come here and look at what we’ve got. I tell you boy, you’ve brought some excitement with you. You see,” she walked past him and the girl, back out into the main hall, looking around for Lucius, “we don’t much like people with unattached earlobes.”
“Why not?” the man asked worriedly. “What’s the deal with earlobes anyway?” He laughed uncertainly. The image of Clara’s mother, folding the sweater, flashed through his mind.
She shrugged, “They aren’t right. You aren’t right, as you have shown yourself to be. Not right.”
“Ma’am, I thank you for your kindness and hospitality, but I do believe that we’ve overstayed our visit. We’d best be going now.” He picked up his hat, knocking the plastic figure to the floor as he did so. The balding man and the tawny-haired kid stood in front of the bed now, staring hungrily at the man and the girl. “Come on, Clara, we’d best be on our way.”
Clara did not hear him. She was staring at the figure lying on the ground.
“What’s the rush?” The woman asked, still wearing that peculiar smile. “We’ve still got to make you right.” She stood in the doorway, blocking their way.
The man looked at her with revulsion. “Listen, whatever connection you think there is between earlobe shape and anything else, I assure you, it’s just coincidental. Let’s go, Clara.”
The hobbling sound of a man with a cane resounded in the forum. Lucius was coming. The woman stood in front of the man and put her hands on his shoulders, holding him in place. The man squirmed under her mighty strength but couldn’t loosen her hold.
Clara still stared at the plastic figure lying on the floor. She felt somewhere inside her that this was wrong, not as it ought to be. She went over and picked it up. She placed it back on the dusty table, right on the dustless spot from which it had been knocked down, but felt that this was a wrong placement for it. So she knocked the figure back onto the ground, picked it up, and placed it back onto the table. But again, to her great dismay, there was the thought in her mind, scratching at it painfully as though with a rake, that the figure was placed wrongly. So she knocked it off the table and picked it up and put it back. Again, it wasn’t quite the right placement. She must start all over. “Oh no,” she groaned.
The man looked down at Clara with fear in his eyes, then back at the woman. Lucius had come to stand right behind the woman and in addition to his shiny metal cane he had with him a shiny sword.
“I’m stuck,” Clara said in a frail voice.
“She’s what?” asked the woman, looking around the man to the girl.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen!” Clara cried. “My earlobes….”
“She’s stuck,” said the man, bewildered. “In the movement.”
“What in hell does that mean?” Lucius said and then spat into a dark corner.
“Listen, Clara, you just come with me and we’ll head on over to the shelter,” the man said over his shoulder, keeping his eyes on the woman’s face. Sweat was streaming down his forehead, glistening in the lamplight. He licked his lips. “I promise you that there is no connection there.”
“Then why can’t I stop? Why is this happening?” she screamed, crying convulsively, bending down again and again.
Light glinted off Lucius’s sword and the man hurriedly racked his brain, but could not find a satisfactory answer for her. He mumbled something about a doctor friend. That the doctor could help them if only they could get to the shelter. He felt the woman’s grip loosen on his shoulders, she was distracted by Clara’s movement, and he smacked her hands away and ran past her and Lucius. He could hear Clara calling plaintively behind him, “No, don’t go! Take me with you!” He heard the woman laugh and Clara shriek.
The man’s vision blurred. He was crying, but he didn’t realize it until he couldn’t see. He began rubbing at his eyes with the sleeve of his coat and ran straight into one of the dark figures that he had seen earlier lurking in the shadows. It was the figure of a woman wrapped in red and golden silk. He fell on top of her and instinctively began apologizing, but stopped when he noticed her vacant stillness. She looked and felt real, human, but she didn’t move. He brought his face close down to hers and looked at her earlobes: he saw that they had been cut off and that there was a singed mark there, as though after being cut off, what was left of her earlobes, now seeming attached, had been cauterised. He jerked away from the vacant body, kicking it accidentally, and she fell away from him with a preternatural lightness, with the lightness of a stuffed animal.
The man heard the hobbling Lucius coming after him from somewhere in the darkness. He got up and ran toward the light of the foyer, yanked up his bag and went out the door. Outside, the storm had been raging stronger and stronger and the wind smacked into him, almost knocking him over. The man’s eyes were still watering, but he wasn’t sure anymore whether it was because of the cold or because of the thought of Clara stuck in the movement, stuck with those people.
“Damn it all,” he screamed and started to run faster. Every step of his sunk deep into the snow, and as he got farther and farther from the house, the snow got deeper and deeper. Soon he found himself submerged from the waist down. He tried to climb out but that didn’t work. His lower half was trapped, compacted by the snow. Each time he struggled, he just fell headlong into the snow, and from then on the more he struggled the deeper he became mired in it, until finally there was nothing left of him that could be seen. There was only the whiteness of the snow settled on the ground and the whiteness falling from above, erasing everything.