In the years that followed, legend would claim it was Lily Brice who caused the blizzard.
There was some truth to it. She did come to town on the headwind of a late spring storm – the worst kind of tempest. For two days it snowed in a diaphanous curtain of white, until the snow was heaped in great caches against doors and gathered precariously in the corners of window sashes; the snow drifted across the mountains, floated down into the valleys, blew across the flats in bilious mounds of white and gathered on the banks of the river; it spread like a downy blanket over rooftops and clung to the rough surface of brick buildings; it swept across roads and clung to the eyebrows and lashes of the few intrepid travelers who dared to venture outdoors.
For three weeks the townsfolk went without power. It was the worse storm in over a century. And while they had never experienced anything like it themselves, they came from hardy stock. And they had each other, as they always did in times of need.
But Lily had no one. She was a stranger in a strange land, snowed in on top of Brice Mountain, afraid and alone. She had only come because of the letter. And she would stay because she had nowhere else to go.
The power had been out for two days before Lily realized she was in trouble. The winding road that led from the house down to the main highway was covered in over three feet of snow. Later, Lily would learn there was a footpath down near the cemetery – a shortcut to the main road. But even if she had known it was there, all signs of it were lost under the great drifts and she would surely have gotten lost had she tried to make her way down the mountain on foot.
She stood at the window of the doublewide trailer, shivering under the blanket wrapped around her shoulders, and looked across the field toward what Owen Bradley, the estate lawyer, called “the old homestead.” It was a white clapboard house with a porch running around two sides and a corrugated tin roof. There was a white picket fence hemming it in all around. If Lily looked hard enough, she could make out a corner post or two, a slightly grayer shade of white than the surrounding snow. Just beyond the old house was a stable and up where the road started its first curve down the mountain sat a barn in need of mending. Even though she had no memory of her father, the place seemed somehow familiar to her and looking out at it gave her a small amount of comfort. She glanced in the direction of the barn again. Did she remember playing in the loft? She wasn’t sure.
According to Owen, her father, Roy Brice, could never bring himself to tear down the home his grandfather had built for his grandmother but Roy would occasionally rent it out to hunters or to the inevitable overflow of tourist who couldn’t get a room at the only motel nearby—the Rhododendron Inn—during the annual Bluegrass Festival.
The doublewide was nicer than she anticipated. If she didn’t know it, she would think she was in a real house. It had hardwood floors throughout. They were really the fake kind but you could hardly tell. It even had a cozy gas fireplace but she had already run out of fuel. Her father died with the propane tank almost empty. The doublewide sat on a rise and offered a better view of the mountains than the old house, but it was too close to the cemetery for Lily’s liking. Why would her father put it so near the graveyard? It was a family cemetery but to Lily they were all strangers.
She moved from the window and walked back to the kitchen. Her stomach rumbled and her head ached from lack of caffeine.
And then it started to snow again.
She set about rummaging through the cabinets one more time, hoping for the forgotten bag of cookies or jar of peanut butter. But all she found was an almost-empty bottle of Jim Beam. Liquor had been her father’s ruination. And, unfortunately, the empty cupboards reflected a drunk’s priorities and neglect. The weak light filtering in from the window curled around the thin line of amber liquid like a sneer.
She wondered if the small little town had any type of emergency services. Maybe they felt they didn’t need it, being the isolationists they were, she thought bitterly. What hardship would it be for them to be trapped in their homes for a few days? They had their canned goods and their rifles and their wood or coal burning stoves. They could hunker down and ride it out. But Lily wasn’t a mountain girl. She wasn’t used to “roughing it.” Her heart started to thud in her chest. She grabbed her purse that was sitting on the kitchen table and pulled a small vial of pills out of a zippered case. She popped a tranquilizer left over from her last airplane ride in her mouth and reached for the Jim Beam to wash it down. The water had stopped flowing too.
Her cell phone battery had gone dead a long time ago, even if she was able to get a signal in this godforsaken place, which she wasn’t. Her only hope was that the few people in town who even knew she was here hadn’t forgotten about her. Lily wrapped the blanket tighter and walked back to the recliner that sat in front of the flameless, cold fireplace and stared at the fake logs. Short of a helicopter, she didn’t know how anyone could get up there to save her.
The only thing that made Lily forget her current troubles was thinking about her Charles. Anger always trumped fear for Lily. Her fiancé should have been there. But when had she ever been able to count on him? She wondered if he had been trying to call her. She wondered if he was worried about her. Probably not, she thought, jerking the blanket tighter against her feet.
The pill and the Jim Beam were starting to take effect. She looked out the window and watched the snow fall in the fading light and thought about the letter.
The day the letter came, Lily had opened the door to Charles’ studio just as he was putting the final strokes on the woman’s inner thigh. Five minutes remained before the end of the session, but she couldn’t restrain herself any longer. The woman – even though Lily thought she looked more like a girl – leaned, naked, atop a rough trestle table pushed up against the exposed brick wall at the far end of the room with the fine northern light, so sought after by artists, seeping in through the window opposite. Charles had positioned her just right, so that the full-spectrum soft light reflected off her youthful body and made her look vulnerable despite the strong, determined look in her eyes. He had captured that sense of vulnerability on the canvas to perfection, at least to Lily’s “untrained eye”, as Charles so often pointed out when she tried to appraise his talent.
In fact, Lily had talent of her own in pencil drawing but could never develop the seemingly careless deportment necessary to paint. Charles, on the other hand, could take a blank canvas, do a quick sketch, dab colors on it in—what appeared to Lily—the most disorganized and random fashion and end up with something sublime.
The model had long dark hair, not unlike Lily’s own, and, for a moment, she felt a pang of jealousy. She used to be Charles’ model but she was too busy with her day job to spend hours sitting in the studio. The human form was his subject of choice but did he really need a live nude model? Maybe she should be flattered that the woman held a slight resemblance to herself but, instead, it made Lily even more uncomfortable. Her job allowed her to be home all day, so it wasn’t like Charles and his model were alone in the house. But she often found herself distracted from her work, sneaking furtive glances at the closed door. She fought to push the unease to the back of her mind. Lily prided herself on not being the jealous kind.
“Time to let her go home to her mommy, Charles. It’s getting late.”
The woman-child rolled her eyes at Lily as she lifted off her perch and walked unapologetically to a robe draped across a chair sitting in the corner. She drew the white robe over her glistening shoulders with all the coyness of a striptease artist.
Charles might have thought vulnerability was as asset in a portrait, but not in real life.
“What the hell!” Charles threw the letter onto the table. “He never came around when he was alive, and now you have to tidy up for him after he’s dead?”
Lily pulled the letter from the center of the table. “Well, he did leave me the house and the land,” Lily offered.
The letter had come earlier that afternoon. The postman knocked on the door and shoved an electronic signature box toward her. “You have to sign for this,” he said. She wanted to show Charles the letter right then, but knew he would be angry if she disturbed his session with the model. He paid her by the hour.
“Left it to you? How about ‘dumped’ it?” Charles looked out the window, his eyes unfocused. “Let someone else take care of it.” He shook his head. “What would you do with it anyway?”
“I could sell it.”
He snorted. “How much money do you think you would get from some useless piece of land in the middle of – for god’s sake! – Appalachia.” His lips stretched as if he had just eaten something bitter. “And it will probably cost you more to sell than it’s worth.”
He was right of course. Selling it would get her very little money. But, if she didn’t, then there would be property taxes to pay.
Charles poured himself another glass of wine and Lily tensed, waiting for that moment in her fiancé’s drinking when the thin facade of decorum dissipated, when the infinitesimal but profound shift took place. The bottle had, perhaps, one more glass lingering in the bottom.
Lily tucked away her apprehension and spread the letter flat with the palm of her hands. “It says: …and the adjacent cemetery.” She looked up. “A family cemetery.”
“So?” Charles grabbed the neck of the almost-empty bottle of wine sitting between them. Traces of burnt sienna showed beneath his fingernails and Lily caught the familiar scent of artist oils wafting across the table. She could almost tell what colors he had been working with, on any given day, by his smell.
“So. If I sold it, I would be selling my ancestors’ graves to some stranger.” Lily looked up. “Don’t you find that a little disconcerting.”
“Are you really up for managing a cemetery?”
“I really don’t think it would take much effort.”
Charles took a large gulp of wine then refilled his glass. “Look, they may be your ancestors but you don’t know them. You’ve never been a part of their lives. You owe them nothing.”
“I was both born there. My birth certificates say so.” Lily shared the same concerns as Charles, but she wasn’t ready to so objectively discard the final resting place of her long-lost relatives.
“And that makes a difference?” He slammed his glass of wine on the table. Lily watched the red liquid slosh close to the rim but then settled back without a drop being spilled. “We’re barely getting by as it is, how can you afford to pay property taxes? And how are you going to find the money to pay for someone to take care of a…of a…graveyard?”
Lily leaned back from the table. It was unlike Charles to worry about finances. That was usually left up to her.
He shook his head and said, “For god’s sake!” again, as if Lily hadn’t heard him the first time, then skidded his glass to the middle of the table, almost crashing it against the now empty wine bottle. “I’m going out.”
And Lily knew she would not see him until the following morning, or maybe even the afternoon.
In the end Lily knew she would be going alone to bury the father that she barely remembered.
The first place Lily stopped when she arrived in the little town of Birchleaf was the funeral parlor. There was only one, so there was no mistaking it. She talked to the owner and director, Jasper “Jake” Fulton.
“So you’re Lily Brice,” he said. “I would’ve known without you tellin’ me. You look a lot like your mamaw.”
“Your mamaw. Your grandmother.” He drew out the last word.
She learned later that “mamaw” was a bastardization of the French word for grandmother – memere. Somehow it had become part of the local vernacular. Lily made a mental note that if she ever became a grandmother, her grandchildren would NOT be calling her mamaw.
Between the two of them, they decided the funeral was to be the held the next day but it started to snow as soon as she stepped foot into the trailer.
No one was going to be buried until the snow melted. She might not have been from “around these parts” – as she had been accused of on several occasions already – but she was smart enough to figure that one out.
Lily shivered. She was hungry and tired and cold. She jumped up from the chair and walked in circles around them room. Movement produced heat and the only thing stronger than her desire for a big bowl of pasta with a chunk of Italian bread on the side was to be warm. In a few hours it would be dark and the thought of staying another night alone in the cold trailer with nothing to eat was growing less and less appealing. She stopped at the big picture window again and looked out through the still falling snow toward the little clapboard house in the distance.
So near, yet so far, she thought.
Mainly she was looking at the brick chimney that came up through the center of the house. It looked like the real deal, not a gas fireplace with fake heavily barked logs or the need for propane. Mr. Bradley said her father rented the house out to hunters. She pictured a long-forgotten can of chili or beef stew in one of the cupboards. And logs neatly stacked by the fireplace, ready to be lit.
It was already getting dark. If she was going to go for it, it was now or never.
Lily stood in the laundry room by the side door and pulled on her father’s snow boots. She hadn’t had time to unpack many of her clothes but, even so, none of her boots were any match for what she would face once she opened the door. Roy’s boots were big but they had waterproof nylon at the top with a string running through that she could tie off to keep the snow out and two pairs of thick socks took up much of the extra room. In fact, she was covered head-to-toe in her father’s outdoor gear – a woolen balaclava and bibbed down-filled coveralls. She wore her own ski-jacket and gloves.
She heaved the backpack loaded with things she couldn’t do without in case she decided to stay in the little white house. She had already gone around and flipped off all the switches she might have inadvertently turned on while the electricity was out. There was no need to think about locking up and securing the place, even if there wasn’t a blizzard going on outside.
Her laptop battery was low, so it would stay where it was for the time being. It would take up too much room in her backpack and it was of no use to her until the power came back on anyway. She had a pen and her notebook in the backpack in case the muse hit her before the electricity came back on.
The cold wind forced her backwards when she opened the door. The handle of the wide shovel leaning against the wall by the steps was peeking out from the snow. She reached over to free it and started the laborious trudge to her grandmother’s house, feeling a bit like Little Red Riding Hood. But where was the wolf?
It was already dark by the time she made it to the fence. The snow seemed to glow from underneath by some supernatural force and threw off just enough light for Lily to see her way. Lucky, the wind and direction of the snowfall caused a drift to form in front of the house and the lowest point was just beyond were she was standing. If she hadn’t taken all those yoga classes, she might not have even gotten this far, but she was glad the rest of the way would be a little easier going. It didn’t take her long to get to the porch.
She hadn’t even thought about the door being locked. Giving a little prayer, she tried the knob. It turned easily enough, despite the clumsiness of her numb frozen hands, but the door required a little help from her shoulder to un-stick the bottom front edge.
Her labored breath sounded like a disembodied echo now that she was inside. A pile of half-melted snow quickly formed at her feet and Lily, as if by instinct, gave a silent apology to the grandmother she never knew for spoiling her clean floor. She pulled off her gloves, tugged the backpack off, and rummaged inside it. The small flashlight that served as her key chain would finally came in handy.
Lily didn’t know what to expect but she wasn’t displease with what she saw. She swept the small beam of light across the space in front of her. Straight ahead, through an opening, she could see a long rectangular table surrounded by chairs. On the far wall of the room where she was standing hung a mounted deer head. Lily quickly jerked the light away from the grotesque thing with its small beady eyes. She could swear they had stared back at her. To the left was a well-used fireplace.
It was not a large space but every room was adequate and functional. To the left of the living room was a bedroom with it’s own fireplace that shared the one chimney. Straight ahead was the long table in a fairly large eating area with another bedroom to the left. To the right of the dining area was a kitchen with an old-fashioned wood-burning stove situated close to the back wall and there was a red water pump next to the sink. There was a modern refrigerator but Lily didn’t take the time to open it. The electricity had been out for two days; whatever might have been forgotten inside was surely spoiled by now.
In the dining room, a door opened out into back yard. On a small table by the door, Lily found a propane lantern. Luckily, it still had plenty of fuel and there were several packages of matches in the draw underneath.
After turning on the lantern, the first thing she did was to start a fire. Instead of a pile of wood, a large bucket of coal sat on the slate apron of the fireplace in the living room. It took her more than a few tries to get it started and, even then, she wasn’t sure if the fire had taken hold. The coal produced little flame but seemed to be generating a lot of heat and the black chunks emitted an occasional ticking that sounded strange to Lily’s ear, but there was something about the smell that wafted up from the bucket of coal that seemed familiar to her. Where had she smelled it before? It fired a memory synapse deep in her brain.
Black coal dust was smudged over almost every inch of her face. If she had a mirror, she would have laughed at the sight of her own image. But she could only see her hands and they were filthy. She needed water. Not only for cleaning her hands but to survive. Lily knew that a person could live a long time without food but only a short time without water. With all that snow outside, she would have plenty of it as long as the coal held out. Eating cold snow when you were already freezing wasn’t a good idea.
After she melted a sufficient amount of snow by resting a large kettle near the fire and making several trips outside with another pot, she cleaned her hands the best she could. Then she took the lantern and went back in the kitchen in search of something to eat.
The effects of the pill and Jim Beam had worn off long ago. And now that Lily wasn’t preoccupied with trying to start a fire, her anxiety returned. The wind seemed to pick up and, unbelievably, the snow was not letting up either.
She thought of Charles. Was he comfortable in their loft? As drafty as it was, the memory of it seemed like warm oasis to her now. Did Charles miss her? She thought of the model posing naked in front of him and a knot formed in her stomach. Why hadn’t she insisted he come with her? Why hadn’t he insisted on coming with her?
The house that seemed so warm and inviting at first now seemed like a brooding animal. It creaked and groaned; banged and whined. The corners grew darker and took on a dangerous feel. Logically, Lily knew that there was no one lurking in the shadows. The snowstorm held back the good intentioned as well as the bad. But Lily was starting to see the incredulity of her situation – far from home, alone in a strange house and snowed in by possibly the biggest storm of the century. How did she get into this mess? She had packed what was left of the Jim Beam in her backpack and thought about using it to wash another pill down her throat but thought better of it. A hollow acidic pain shot up from her stomach. She had made the trek to the house to look for food; she needed to get to it.
For a place that was rented out to hunters, the house was remarkably clean. She would have expected to find a crumbled bag of pork rinds, at the very least. But the cupboard was bare. What she did find, though, was a well-sealed container of coffee with about an inch of ground coffee in the bottom and another matching one with sugar. Hunters were early risers; bless them. A sweet cup of coffee was better than nothing. Thank god she also found an old-fashioned percolator-style coffee pot.
Lily thought of putting the coffee pot near the fireplace like she had done with the kettle to melt the snow but when she turned to see the huge wood-burner staring at her, she wondered why she hadn’t thought of using it the first place.
Although she knew nothing about how it worked.
It was positioned a few feet away from the back wall, probably to prevent fire, she surmised, and so she walked around it wondering if there was any wood stored inside the house. She thought back to all the old-timey shows she’d watched on TV. The men always made sure they brought in enough wood for the womenfolk. The thought made her smile.
Not only did Lily find a cart full of small pieces of dry wood but she also found a wire mesh-fronted cabinet. There were all kinds of dried things that looked like herbs in various sized jars. Lily opened the door and pulled the jars out one at a time, examining the contents of each. The bottom shelf held different varieties of dried mushrooms.
Lily had hit pay dirt.
The stove stood there, hard and substantial and practical, a big hulking thing with nothing that was not useful. The round flat lids with no place to take hold but only a small slot near the edge. Lily finally found, what she later learned, was a lid lifter lying near the back and pried one of the heavy cast iron rounds off and look into the shallow trough underneath. Remnants of long ago fires remained. On her third attempt to light a bundle of sticks, she gave up. Each time she put the lid back on, the fire died out. In the end, she made her concoction using the heat from the cricking coals in the living room.
She looked down at the thin, pale soup made from the dried mushrooms and flavored with thyme and for the first time she allowed herself to cry – lush tears heavy with self-pity fell into the hot soup. All Lily could think was how the salt might make the soup taste better. Her eyes swelled with loneliness – not of the last two days but from all her life that came before. Surround by friends and lovers, she had always been alone.
Her mother, Faith, had been more a sister than a parent. Lily was an only child and, according to Faith, the reason she could never have any more. Her mother didn’t seem to mind; another child would have been like a harness around her neck. Faith was a free spirit and, unlike her name suggested, didn’t believe in much of anything – of God or a steady job, or monogamy, or men in general; except for sex.
Lily’s circle of friends – old and new – were all artists or children of artists. Those neglected abused souls whose guardians thought their art was greater than any responsibility. The only faith Faith had was that she had any talent at all. She tried everything from painting to sculpture to silkscreen. But Lily really suspected it was all an attempt to relive the bohemian life of the 60s – sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, mini-skirts and too much eye makeup ― that Lily had interrupted by her own birth.
Faith always told Lily she left her father because he was irresponsible. He is a drunk, she said, and always will be. The irony of it all made Lily’s head spin.
The couch in the living room was covered with an old patchwork quilt and Lily sat there, with the mug in her hand, wondering if her grandmother had made it. She savored the last bit of soup. Lily considered herself somewhat of a gourmet cook and praised herself for making a tasty, if rather thin, soup out of the herbs and dried mushrooms she’d found behind the stove. Now that she was confident she wouldn’t starve – or fairly certain anyway (the storm had to stop sometime soon) and, hopefully, Jake Fulton from the funeral home wouldn’t forget she was still on top of the mountain – she let herself relax.
In fact she was feeling quite euphoric.
Something moved by the fireplace. A flicker of light different than a flame made Lily turned toward it.
A tiny, colorful circus parade marched across the hearth. . . .