Cold Comfort

          When she appeared in their village, bet they didn’t understand what she was about. Only seen a grayed-out old lady, skinny and stiff as a dried fish — showed up with no big suitcase, no camera, no sermons. Probably considered her foolish.  But she was never foolish. Ever. As a youngster, older folk patted her on the head, called her sensible, growed up for her age. Funny words to say to a child. Later she caught up to herself — sensible as a cotton hankie.

          Thing is, she wasn’t sociable. Didn’t know why. Sociable got you friends, affection, a place in the community. Maybe things worked the other way round. Friendship, love, belonging made a person sociable. Too late for figuring all that out.

          All started one day at the library. Bob Grainger decided to recycle the old National Geographics. Said, “They can be accessed online,” whatever that meant. Ridiculous waste of perfectly good magazines. Grabbed twelve of the oldest from him, ones with fancy covers, curlicues inside a yellow frame.

          Took her a year to finish them all, one month to pour over each one — study  the photos, memorize the names of the countries, locate them on the fold-out maps. Particularly liked Volume XCXII about the Eskimos.  Dark laughing eyes peered from leather faces, crumpled and shrunk like saddlebags left out over the winter. Didn’t know why, but she understood them in the furthest back part of the human soul a person can get at. Could’ve been an Eskimo in a past life. The idea made her smile, but she pushed it away — no call for fanciful notions.

          Never thought she’d be here. Enough for her to flip the pages of the magazine, worn and faded from her touch. But the grim-faced doctor told her the news, and here she was. No place else she wanted to be.

          When she arrived, the Eskimos weren’t the only ones had question marks across their foreheads. Years of studying black and white photos — to see so much color stunned her. ‘Course, shoulda known it’d be like that from the Nature Channel. Bright down parkas, yellow waterproof boots, red wool shirts — looked like clothing from her local K-Mart. She missed the black and white. Decided she’d erase the color, make it the way she was used to. Beep.

          They rode on snowmobiles. Snowmobiles! Thank God, they still had the dogs. Only the snow didn’t surprise her, a cold cover of white rolled into the distance right up to the sky. Her eyes not so good, but she swore she seen igloos out there. Sometimes three, sometimes so many they looked like gopher mounds on a prairie. Beep.

          When she showed them the dog-eared National Geographic, they laughed like their guts would bust. Pointed at photos, called out names, sent children to fetch folks till half the village circled round. Because this was the same place as in the magazine, only seventy-three years later. They passed her magazine from hand to hand. What started out raucous as a picnic petered out to quiet, each person deep in his own recollections, the only sound the wind that scoured the ground. Beep.

          “My present to you,” she told the village elders. They shook their heads, handed it back, called this treasure too valuable to accept. When she insisted, they took the magazine, thanked her with bows, grins, pats on her arms. Best reception to a present she ever got. Beep.

          Didn’t plan to stay long, assured them that right away. Explained how she admired them from afar, felt a kinship to their practical way of life. When she told them what she wanted, jaws dropped, stayed that way. Told ‘em she’d learned about it in her, now their, National Geographic, but couldn’t find mention of it when she riffled through the pages. Bent her face closer and closer to the print, like it was her eyesight, not her memory led her wrong. Musta’ been information she picked up some place different, the library, the History Channel. About how the Eskimos set their old ones adrift on an ice floe when they got too aged, too sickly to be good for anything. She respected the sense in that. When your time is up, drift out to sea. No muss, no fuss. Beep.

          Some villagers marched away in disgust, muttered words probably meant “crazy old coot” in Eskimo. One young man, face all peaks and plains, a large, proud nose like a Comanche, drew her aside, said the story was the male version of a cow patty, only he didn’t use those words. Even if it used to happen, didn’t happen anymore, he said.

          After that, they left her alone. When she kneeled close while they worked on their snowmobiles, trailed them when they went ice-fishing, mixed with the crowd when the airplane, the one shoulda brought her there, landed with supplies, they stared through her. Beep.

          Teenagers avoided her, made a wide circle if she happened their way. One time she made a game of it, walked toward them, whichever direction they turned. This tickled her. They called her names.

          One day two little ones, faces full as muffins, followed her around. If she turned to them, they skittered away, trailed her again soon as she turned her back. Never possessed much skill with children. Decided it was time she made an effort.

          “All this snow and no snowman anywhere.” Her voice croaked when she said it out loud. She rolled a clump of snow along the ground till it formed a large ball stuck through with dead grass, streaks of dirt. Then she made a smaller ball. Plopped it on top of the bigger one, packed handfuls of snow onto it to make it larger. Li’l Boy and Li’l Girl, her names for them, approached with fat chunks of snow. Packed them on the snowman till he was all bumps and lumps. They laughed. Beep.

          For his head, she put a small ball of snow at the top. Gathered rocks for mouth, eyes, buttons. Took her a while to find the right rock for a nose. Gave him her knitted cap, red and blue with a fat pompom. Li’l Boy and Li’l Girl stuck rocks and twigs wherever they wanted.

          Last thing she added were the arms. One formed a log of snow down his side. The hand held her favorite red ball, the present from her momma. Only it looked new, not dinged and torn, cried over. Bright, beautiful red — only spot of color in this black and white world. The other, a teapot handle shape, needed more time to make. First one fell apart when she looped her arm inside it. Second one, she made sturdier. Beep.

          Rambo, that’s what they named him. Li’l Boy and Li’l Girl shouted Rambo, Rambo, Rambo, raced round him in swerving circles before they landed back at his side, tired, red-faced, happy. In her mind she pictured what they looked like - her arm looped through Rambo’s, Li’l Boy and Li’l Girl gathered close. A family.

          Next time she saw him, Rambo wore a scarf, a man’s hat. His rock nose disappeared, replaced by a big one made of snow and ice. Comanche-like. More twigs stuck out his sides, farther up, placed by older hands. He looked half porcupine, half snowman, a strange creature in a strange land. Like her. Beep.

          After Rambo, people didn't avoid her. Didn’t talk to her much either till she collapsed. Li’l Boy and Li’l Girl ran screaming through the village, pulled people back to where she went down, a crumbled pile on the dingy snow. She didn’t want to make a fuss, that was the whole thing. She turned her face down, to hide the contortions of mouth and eyes pain forced her to make. Flung her arm at them — stay-away. A  pale woman in green touched her. She screamed. Beep. After that, they let her be till the pain left, quick as the wave that brought it in.

          Later on, the village elders and her met for long hours of silence, interrupted with words, sometimes shouting. She wanted what she wanted. Things plant themselves inside, no breaking them loose. They checked their charts, shook their heads. Beep.

          Her desire wasn’t what others wanted, but it was everything she’d saved up for. Her dream to burst open her life at its last moments.

          In the end she wore them out. They carried her on a snowmobile to the edge of the gray sea-ice, bundled her into a low-riding boat. She pointed through the cutting sleet. That was the one, not too large or small. Goldilocks size. When they bumped into the edge, Comanche Nose scooped her up, timed his leap to the choppy water, deposited her with furs, food on a spot near the center of the floe. He handed her a rock — recognized it as Rambo’s original nose.  Her hat with the pom pom. Her beautiful red ball. She clutched them tight. Beep.

          When she woke, she forgot where she was, like on those mornings with dreams so real, you can’t get out of them. The scratchy sheets, the tube up her nose. Still alive. Beep.

          The cold on her cheek, the sight of the dark sea speckled with floes to the distance, brought her back. She rolled to her side, eyed the horizon in a slow peruse, stopped at the green wall. She was not afloat in the endless sea, not lost under a slate sky. Beep.

          If tears were possible in the frozen north, her face would’ve been crusted with thin icicles down to her chin. Never let herself be disappointed before, always pushed the feeling down hard. Problem was she’d gotten ahead of herself, like her daddy, with his clenched fist, warned her.

          When she closed her eyes, the sun lightened the horizon. The cold current rocked her closer to land till her bed locked in place, anchored and motionless, ice grinding into ice. Beep.

          In disgust, she threw away the knit cap with the pompom. Then the scarf, the fur coat, the down windbreaker. The hospital gown. Beep. Ripped the tape, the IV tube from her arm, unclipped the oxygen monitor.  

          With frozen fingers, she folded each piece of clothing in turn. Piled everything up neat then swept it to the floor. Laid herself down on the ice. The cold made itself at home, pressed its weight against her nakedness. She held the beautiful red ball close against her chest. It rose and fell at each breath.

          With the dawn, first one then another, appeared — Comanche Nose, the village elders, the children, the pale woman in green, Li'l Boy and Li'l Girl, Rambo — silhouettes familiar as portraits. Her witnesses. Against the white snow, they lined up on the other side of the thin crack separated ice floe from land, her from them. Wasn’t what she hoped, but more than she thought she could imagine. Much more.

Susan Matsumoto has been immersed in the creative arts, including writing, since graduating California Institute of the Arts/Chouinard Art school in Los Angeles. Currently she and her husband partner in inventing toys and consumer products. Now living in Santa Barbara, California, Matsumoto is a member of the Mesa Writers Group and Friday Writers, while participating in seminars on short story and fiction writing with Shelly Lowenkopf and Toni Lopopolo. She devours books of all kinds, but following Stephen King’s advice “Write what you love” is in the final editing process of her first novel, which wraps the social upheaval of the early ‘50s of race, class and gender around a murder in the placid farming town of Oxnard, California, where she grew up.