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Candle in the window

It's not meant to snow, not now, for it's spring and a few twigs are swelling already. But when we wake, we are deep in drifts: over the porches, up to the sills. How many feet deep? No fences show.

''We were supposed to go into town,'' says Cousin Henry, peevishly shuffling the manuscript on which he was working last night.

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''But town is also snowed in,'' I answer. ''They'll plow the main avenues, but the streets may stay blocked for days.''

Telephone lines are down, electricity went out sometime in the night. I find the isolation exciting, but by afternoon Cousin Henry is restless. ''Don't you have translations overdue to turn in? People may be trying to reach us. We can walk the ten miles to the highway and hitchhike.''

He'll sling his violin case on his back, we'll stuff money and manuscripts into our pockets, and wear heavy clothes. I'll organize a canvas bag to transport Oreo, the black-and-white kitten we can't leave behind.

''It's cold out,'' I protest, ''and dark still falls early.''

''Let's give it a trial run anyway,'' Cousin Henry argues. ''It will be an adventure.''

He knows I will rise to that bait. I pull on my boots. We tell Oreo we are only off for a walk.

Knowing Cousin Henry can act like a caged bear and disliking arguments, the challenge of the blizzard is preferable to his querulousness.

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Cold outside, even the cedars bend over with snow. We jump off the porch into the drifts. Cousin Henry leads: he is tall and, in all his layers of clothing, resembles a grizzly. After a few boughfuls of snow have fallen on him, he is more of a polar bear.

I step in his steps, lift my boots high over the ridges between his deep prints, or drag them to strengthen the trench, but my boots end up full of snow.

Step after step up the hill. . . . Imagine, last summer we ran up this hill in ten minutes! Even Cousin Henry is slowed by the snow. Finally we have gone our one mile, but he continues ahead.

All the animals have disappeared: rabbits to burrows, foxes to dens, cardinals under the cedar branches, raccoons to the hollow tree, and where have the deer found shelter? Even the geese and swans have abandoned the cove.

Only one towhee, his cap orange-red and his breast speckled white, leaps at the single weed on a ridge where the snow is not so deep. Is he leaping merely to keep himself warm, in some ornithological and Sisyphean dance? Then I see that with each leap his beak snatches one seed.

The sun appears, dimmed, as if cowed by the cold.

Cousin Henry climbs farther and farther away up the hill. Then he suddenly turns and comes down, remarking in passing what a slowpoke I am, we would never have made it to the main road tonight anyway. His cheeks are red, his eyes are sparkling, he is in marvelous humor. I turn and follow in his footsteps down the hill. But slowly. . . .

''Come on, hurry up,'' he calls over his shoulder. ''I'll go ahead and start some soup cooking, and light the fire. I'll just practice a few arpeggios before supper.''

Soup sounds good, but I realize I'm no longer cold. Indeed I am warm and damp inside all my layers of clothes. The wind is no longer chill, the sky turns from gray to pink to darker gray. Is it late? I am warm and even strangely sleepy now.

I begin to dream of pushing through jungles, as if all this waist-high snow were tangles of vines. The numbed gulls screech, but I hear toucans and hornbills. Perhaps our ice-white river will melt to a warm brown jungle stream. . . .

My steps are heavier and heavier. Far away Cousin Henry is calling me to catch up, but I no longer feel any need to hurry, even to walk. I keep lifting my boots and placing them neatly into our old footprints, but I don't even feel I am moving. The crust crackles as I stumble, and tumble into the drifts. I will rest a moment before I get up. . . .

Suddenly--how much later?--here is Cousin Henry shaking me. ''Wake up!''

He is trying to pull me to my feet, but I am fighting him, it seems, to sink back into my drift.

''Wake up!'' He starts to rub snow on my face, he begins shaking me as if I were a rabbit. ''Wake up!''

Finally I open my eyes. The sky is dark, but over the ridge is the outline of an oncoming moon. Somewhere through trees is the cottage, and the river beyond. The moon proves an illusion, and clouds also cover the stars.

Cousin Henry is shouting, ''What happened to you? I thought you were walking right behind me, I thought you'd just come in quietly and gone to write in your room where you can't hear my violin.''

He pushes me ahead of him back onto the sort of path we have created. As we approach the cottage, I see he has placed a candle in the window. Inside, the fire blazes. Garlic and bay leaves lead the way to his soup. He tugs off my stiff wet boots and jacket, as if I were a child, and, still scolding, wraps me in blankets by the fire. He hangs our wet socks on the fire screen, and insists on bringing over a pan of lukewarm water for my frozen feet in an unconscious archetypal gesture. Let him think the tears in my eyes are melted snowflakes. . . .

''Hurry! Drink this soup!'' he orders.

After years of looking after others, I am not used to being waited on. But Cousin Henry and I seem to look after each other. And how lovely it is.

He throws a moth-eaten, mouse-eaten blanket over his shoulders. I assure him that tomorrow I'll walk the ten miles with no trouble.

''No, no,'' he argues, ''we don't have to go into town for several days. We have plenty of firewood and candles, paper and pencils, violins and books. Do you remember how Great-aunt Emma would read us 'Hollow Tree Snowed-In' when we were little? Remember the animals - Mr. Rabbit said they would form a literary club, and if anybody couldn't write, he must dance a jig. We already have our literary club. I'll play jigs on my violin, and even the cat will learn to write mysteries, and - ''

''Miceteries,'' I murmur, half asleep by the fire.

The cat curls into my lap. The mice tiptoe across the hearth on their pink toothpick legs. The whistling swans land in the cove. The candle burns out, but the fire glows all night.

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