IT IS A COLD WINTER, uncharacteristically bitter and snowy. It grips the city early, beginning December 6, on St. Nicholas Day, and shows no sign of abating. On December 15, a 31-inch snowfall covers the city; the townspeople are caught unprepared. It snows every day after that, mostly two or three inches a day, but by Christmas Eve, 30 additional inches are piled on top of that first major blizzard. The officials ask the state for financial help, but the state has its own winter problems; then they turn to the federal government, but it, too, has financial problems, mostly from previous disasters: hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires. "You’re on your own," Uncle Sam says to city officials.
For the most part, people are snowbound in their homes, only able to get out on foot or by snowmobile. Schools have closed, and a local state-of-emergency has been called. No one, except emergency personnel and volunteers, is allowed to drive vehicles on the road–even then, only snowmobiles, front-wheeled drive vehicles, and buses. Pedestrians are allowed on the street– very few people shovel their walks because there is nowhere to put the snow–but it is caveat emptor: chances are, no one will be available to rescue them should they suffer from the cold and collapse into a snow bank. Freeze and frostbite warnings fill the airwaves: "Don’t leave your home unless you absolutely have to!"
Very few people go to work. But some stubborn souls do freeze to death in snow banks and deserted alley ways.
From a commercial standpoint, the Christmas season has been a disaster, although Christians know its true meaning and know how to celebrate without all the secular trappings, still enjoying a satisfying and holy Christmas Day.
By New Year’s Day, the mercury has dropped to a low of 50 below and a high of 25 below, so cold that when you breathe, the hairs in your nose freeze up, and your lungs feel as though they were being ripped from your chest. Young girls and boys spit just so they can watch the water freeze in midair and land on the ground with a tinkle.
People of all ages drop dead from cold-induced heart attacks, and the local TV station has devoted entire shows to how to dress for the cold: layering your clothing and covering every surface of exposed flesh. Wear a mask over your mouth–young people mustn’t be so fashion-conscious, warns the meteorologist on TV–especially old people and all others who may be susceptible to heart attacks.
Throughout January, snow, mostly flurries, continues to fall, but it never melts; the curbs of city streets are piled with six-foot drifts. Slowly, the snow plows are making their way through the streets, and life returns to some normalcy. Inhabitants start to trickle back to work and school, and, by now, the people have learned how to dress for arctic weather. Reports of freezing deaths subside. On Groundhog Day, the furry creature sees his shadow, so six additional weeks of hard winter are assured. No one would be surprised if winter held the city in its grip through July. The people are resigned, but long-faced and grouchy.
Love of neighbor on hiatus.
Just after Groundhog Day, the mayor, a big jovial man with red cheeks and nose, goes on TV and announces the First Annual Winter Carnival, to be held on the fairgrounds, to commence immediately and continue every weekend until the final thaw.
In the large halls, there will be exhibits of all kinds and competitions for best pies, cakes, quilts, paintings–almost everything that is judged in the September Fair.
In Exhibition Hall, hot dish cook-offs will be conducted: the best hot chili, goulash, spaghetti, pizza, soups, desserts–the only limitation: the cook’s imagination. Because of the season, no animal and produce exhibitions and competitions will be organized, but some new categories will be added: for the children, a snow fort competition and, for the adults, ice structures and sculpture competitions. Local architects will design ice buildings and palaces, and teams of local builders and volunteers will build them on the fairgrounds. Local sculptors and artists will carve ice sculptures. First, second, third, and honorable mention prizes will be awarded to the best entries.
Excitement takes over the city; volunteer crews clear out all the extra snow from the fairgrounds–except what is needed for the competitions. Other crews cut large slabs of ice from the river and haul them to the grounds. Bus drivers offer to work extra shifts so that riders can ride public transportation to the grounds– there are few parking spaces. Free-lance snowplow operators plow private driveways open and haul extra snow out of the city. Young people offer to shovel old people’s sidewalks, free of charge. There is a hum throughout the region, the kind of buzz that usually comes with the first day of spring, when people are outside, polishing their cars, working in their gardens, and playing sandlot baseball, all in their shirt sleeves. Except that now it is still close to 15 below, and no one is in shirt sleeves, but everyone seems to be outside.
So what if it is cold.
The heart of this story begins at the Carnival.
One of the ice sculptors, a young lady who has just graduated from art school, is determined to win first prize. She has planned to sculpt a whale, in a curved position with his tail tilted in the air. In her mind, she can see the long sleek lines of the creature and how it will look in the sunlight. As everyone around her has a good time, she remains at her block of ice, shaving and carving, until fairgrounds officials close the grounds each night. At home, when she is eating supper, she thinks about the sculpture; when her parents or siblings talk to her, she is thinking about the whale.
She dreams about her creation.
Eventually, she convinces the fairground officials to allow her to come to the grounds during weekdays; she has taken a leave of absence from her job.
Previously an outgoing and popular girl, she now turns down invitations from her friends for parties and movie dates. Soon they stop calling, but she barely notices.
The day of the competition, mid-February, her sculpture is not quite ready. Something is missing, the curve, perhaps, is slightly off, or maybe the angle of the tail is somewhat too tilted or the backfin not quite defined. Even so, her sculpture takes third prize.
That should be the end of it, but it is not; the rest of the competitors go on with their lives, even enjoy the rest of the Carnival, but the girl does not. Every day, she visits the displays and compares her whale to the first and second place entries, a castle and an angel, trying to figure out what her sculpture lacks. Soon, she is spending entire days sitting in front of the winning exhibits, staring and contemplating. One day, she brings a pup tent, sleeping bag, space heater–everything needed for long-term survival in the cold–and sets up camp.
She becomes a part of the exhibit itself, the local Carnival-goers going to see her as much as they would go to see the works of art.
She is a hunger artist by default: it is still very cold outside, and she has refused all solid food, drinking only hot liquids brought to her by anxious Carnival officials, who have
yet to make a move about her camp-in.
The local media hear of her obsession and begin covering her vigil: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3... Finally, on Day 15, Carnival officials announce to the media that the girl, along with her sculpture, would be removed from the fairgrounds, and banned until spring.
"We can’t have someone freezing and starving to death," they tell the TV reporter. After such a successful and profitable venture, they do not need any bad publicity.
The girl agrees to go willingly, on one condition: that she be allowed to take the winning sculptures as well. The first and second place winners, having received their prize money and gone on with their lives, graciously agree.
Moving day arrives.
The national media are there with their cameras, their microphones, their commentators: "What does this all mean?" they ask each other, the masses, and arm chair psychologists. No one has an answer, but what fun on a cold and rather routine winter day!
A large truck comes, and its driver loads and takes the sculptures away. The move is videotaped and distributed to the masses over the air, through cable, and via the web.
The sculptures are deposited on the girl’s front lawn, where she sets up her camping equipment. "Now I will work," she tells the media who have followed the truck to her house.
For a few days, they chronicle her work, giving updates on her progress, but her work goes slowly: a shave there, a sliver there, a chink here and there, and soon they grow bored. They pick up their equipment and follow the next Big Story.
The girl continues working on her sculpture. She grows so obsessed that she mutilates the two winning sculptures by chopping a spire off the castle and a wing off the angel.
The local media make a blip of the destruction over the airwaves, but demographics show that the public has grown bored.
Winter continues its grip; by early March, the temperature is still below freezing. The girl has become extremely thin and weak, barely able to hold a chisel, but somehow she manages to compensate for the lack of food and snow blindness. Her parents are sick with worry, but since she is over 21, there is very little they can do, and proving incompetence to a court would be very difficult, if not impossible. They will have to wait until she slips into unconsciousness before taking custody and commencing with force-feeding.
The first robin appears on March 15 and lands on the angel’s broken wing. It looks around, shakes its wings, and takes off. The temperature creeps up to 30, 31, 32, 33 degrees. The girl, still working frenetically, barely notices the drip, drip of melting snow and icicles.
It is not until the temperature rises to 45 degrees that the girl notices the changing world around her. Next to the broken angel, a green knob pokes through the ground.
"NO!" the girl screams. She chops the new growth to pieces with her chisel. But other shoots rise through the soil, taking the mutilated shoot’s place and then some.
The girl quickens her pace as the sculptures continue to shrink, becoming slick and gleaming in the sunlight.
By the end of March, much of the snow is gone, but the girl has built a shelter around her masterpiece, insulated inside with straw, and only works on it at night, away from the killing sun. By now, the two winning sculptures have melted into indistinguishable hunks of ice. The girl is worried; today is an especially warm day, about 55 degrees.
She notices as the townspeople wash their cars, chatter in small groups around the neighborhood, ride around in their cars with their boom boxes turned up high, wear short sleeves. She worries about the masterpiece and checks on it every half hour as the sun makes its arc around the earth. So far, so good: the shelter is holding. Maybe she can keep it forever!
On April Fool’s Day, the girl awakens with joy. An onion snow, about six inches, has covered the earth, and temperatures have dropped below 30 degrees. The TV meteorologist, now pinch-faced, predicts cold weather for at least the next five days. The girl leaps for joy!
But her joy is short-lived; two men in trench coats approach her, and identify themselves as officials from City Hall. "You must remove this structure," they tell her. "You need a building permit, and, besides, this shack doesn’t meet city codes."
There is a $500 fine for each day of non-compliance, and since she still lives at her parents’ house and no longer holds a job, she and her father dismantle the shed.
Her father feels sorry for her and would like to find a way to salvage the sculpture, but he is just a forklift driver with other children to support and cannot afford to buy or rent a freezer. Anyway, he feels it is time for her to move on and enjoy the gifts of spring and summer.
Four days left of glorious freezing weather! She works day and night on the sculpture, and, finally, on the last day, the whale gleams with perfection, slicing through the last of winter with its curved body and tilted tail fins. Its lines are so perfect that the neighborhood children come and pet the creature. She allows them this because she believes that such beauty ought to be shared, not hoarded.
She calls the media to tell them that the denouement of their Big Story has just transpired, but they are not interested; they are off chasing the latest celebrity murder trial or plane crash. But no matter: the girl knocks on doors and spreads the good news, so the neighbors, shaking their heads and wondering at all the hoopla, come around and gaze for a few seconds at the whale’s beauty.
"Is that all there is?" they ask as they go back to their cozy homes.
The girl is disappointed that adults cannot enjoy her creation as the perfect work of art, but the children love the whale, some of them sing-songing and whooping, climbing up
on its back and riding it like a horse.
The most perfect day ends with the temperature rising, never to go back to freezing until next winter. The girl falls into bed and sleeps for three days straight.
As the sculpture melts, the girl, even though she has been eating ever since she finished her work, grows weaker and more lethargic. Doctors are consulted, but for a slight vitamin deficiency, they can find nothing wrong with the girl.
"My life is over," she tells her mother just before slipping into a coma. "I cannot ever create such a work of art ever again. So why bother?"
Two weeks later, as the microscopic ball of ice that was once the whale disappears into the earth, the girl dies and once again becomes the Big Story:
The media turn out for the funeral, and they bring back with them footage of the mourners bearing her casket. They splice that footage with clips from last winter when she was holding out at the fairgrounds.
Anchors offer editorial commentary, blasting the system for not intervening in the girl’s case; physicians shake their heads, claiming that the death should have not happened.
Psychologists speculate about the effects of the death on the girl’s siblings and on other young artists.
Lawyers suggest that perhaps a lawsuit might be in order.
A tabloid news magazine TV show dedicates an entire 15-minute segment to the girl’s story, adding a three-minute exposé about how city officials have skimmed profits from the Winter Carnival for their own personal gain.
A week after the funeral, the media have left, and the city returns to normal. The girl lies cold in her grave, the flowers covering it wilted and forgotten.
Next to her headstone, a lone shoot, curled in a loop, unfolds and reaches for the sun.
CHRISTINA PAUSES for five seconds, an eternity in broad-casting, and then looks straight into the camera. "Farewell, good friends," she says. "This is Christina O’Dea, signing off as host of The Valley Catholic Hour. I invite you to tune into the new show, which promises to carry on our good work."
A voice-over comes on, giving the standard closing comments and announcements; then the credits roll.
She shakes hands with Rabbi Goodman and her crew.
Jack Motter is nowhere in sight. But every one else, except Christina, has tears in their eyes, their voices cracking, even the rabbi’s who had not even met her until today.
As Christina leaves the studio, she is surprised to see local reporters surrounding her, some bombarding her with questions about why she is leaving the show. But they all want to know the meaning of her story.
She shrugs, smiles, and says, "Sometimes a story is just a story."
COPYRIGHT © 2013, Viva LaRose
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this excerpt shall be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, magnetic, photographic, including photocopying, recording, copying/ pasting on the internet, and/ or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission of the author and publisher. No patent liability is assumed with respect to the use of the information herein. Although every precaution has been taken in the preparation of this excerpt, the publisher and author assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. Neither is any liability assumed for damages resulting in the use of the information contained herein.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locale, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.