It’s got to be fifteen, twenty below with the wind chill. It can get to you, the way it creeps into your clothes and saps the warmth from your skin. If you know anything about physiological reactions, you know your veins drift deeper into your skin in that kind of cold, in order to insulate you, warm you more efficiently. Your heartbeat slows, your breathing becomes more rhythmic. It’s as if your body wants to sleep. The French have a phrase for sleep – le petit mort – the little death. I wonder if they have a phrase for dying in the cold.
Another thing – the quiet. It creeps into your head, like a live thing. If you stop and hold your breath and stand still, you can hear the snowflakes chime against each other, like flakes of steel from a frozen forge. It’s quiet like that that can ring in your head, the absence of sound as loud as a hammer blow. I watch the smoke from my cigarette drift in lazy spirals and imagine the smoke making a sound in the quiet, like a snake’s skin shivering against a rock.
Something makes me look out from my deck, across the frozen field that in the summer grows thick sheaves of hay. Maybe it’s a change in the quality of the light that filters through a hazy gray sky, maybe it’s the crunching sound of snow being compacted across the field. I squint into the haze and pick out a figure, not more than a shadow at this distance. I wonder for a moment who the hell would be walking across that field. I have a rifle in the closet, and think maybe I should get it. Curiosity gets the better of me though, and I flex my fingers in my gloves, and wait instead.
It’s some time before he gets close enough to see. I consider going in. I consider another cigarette. I wait both those things out, and peer instead into the drifting waves of dry snow that the wind kicks across my vision. I wonder what this place was like with trees, or with people. I wonder if there are people any more. The thought slips away like smoke when the man steps through another wall of snow. He’s older, his face a tanned map of twisting weathered lines. His eyes are blue, like ice on a clear lake, and he’s only wearing an old pea coat buttoned to his neck and black slacks that ripple in the wind like small pennons. His hair is thin and white, and I can see an age spot or two on his scalp when the wind stirs it. He stops when he sees me, and raises a hand, a slight smile on his face. I nod.
It’s only another minute, maybe two, before he stops in front of the porch. His hands are deep in his pockets, and he looks around, as though taking in the small farmhouse and the barn out back. He nods once, as though he’s made a decision, and looks at me. The smile still plays a little on his lips, as though he’s tasted something he’s enjoyed.
“Afternoon.” He says. I watch him, and after a moment, he sniffs, and goes on. “You’re a hard man to find.”
“I’m not hiding.” I say.
He squints one eye a bit, as though weighing me. “I suppose you’re not. You are just in the middle of a field in the middle of the prairie in the middle of winter. Hard to get to, maybe. Not hiding.”
He’s quiet for another beat, and I can hear the wind stirring the snow, like powdered glass in a breeze. He looks off to his right, past the house and off to the field. He purses his lips, and turns back to me.
“I don’t suppose you’d like to invite me up? Mighty cold out here.”
I feel a bit of shame at that. My grandfather always believed even the Devil deserved hospitality.
“Come on up.”
He pulls his hands from his coat and lays them on the banister. They are pale and thin, the skin stretched like parchment, his fingers like spiders. The nails have a dull luster, and peek above his fingertips like opaque claws. He pulls himself up, his feet leaving the snow, and I see he is in bare feet, the same color and state as his hands. I take a step back, and let him up, and hope he doesn’t hear my heart beating timpani in my chest.
He moves up the steps like a snake coils its way around a staff, and stops at the top. I breathe out, the fear in my chest leaving the air hot and steaming in the cold. I look to the man, who is watching me with an intent curiosity. Another round of fear ripples through my chest, and coils its way to my belly. I can’t see his breath.
I stifle the chill in my guts, and walk to the patio furniture I keep out all year. I drop into a chair and light a cigarette with shaking hands. The man sits opposite me, in the chair Martha would lounge in on hot summer nights, a smoke dangling from her fingers, a beer sweating in her other. I glance over at him and see he has his legs crossed, one bare foot dangling over the cold boards of the deck. One hand rests on the glass of the patio table, the other on the chair. He doesn’t speak for a while, just lets me smoke in peace. He breaks the silence first.
“You know, we’re sorry about Martha.”
I freeze, the cigarette halfway to my lips, and he continues.
“It shouldn’t have happened the way it did. A woman shouldn’t be without her man at times like that. At the end. And a man shouldn’t have to hear about it from some talking head on TV.”
A thick wave of anger rippled through me. “How would you know? How did you know?”
He waved a hand, as though counseling patience, or understanding. I didn’t feel as though I had either, though I did have the time.
“It was the end, right? The cities went first. Busy work, the cities. You barely have to knock on doors or travel. Just wall to wall people. Like reaping wheat.”
I remembered. She’d gone to pick up milk, smokes, and some dinner. Then the end came. The sky rolled back, the sun went black, and the world grew cold. She never came home.
“She was brave, if it helps.” He said. “She just..closed her eyes, there in the middle of the street, and waited.”
My anger was kindling to a white flame. “Why tell me this?”
He shrugs. “Seems a man would want to know that sort of thing.”
I stand. “You need to leave.”
He raises a placating hand. “Not quite yet, Mr. Sorenson. There’s something you need to know. A choice you need to make.”
I eye those long fingernails and pale flesh, and think of Romero movies and the long dead, whose fingernails and hair appear to grow even after the breath that drives the body has ended. I wonder what it is he has to say, and the curiosity drives me back to my chair. I sit on the cold metal and wait, my hands absently lighting another cigarette.
“You know your Dante?” He asks.
“I have an idea.” I was a good Catholic boy once upon a time.
“Your wife is alone, David. Alone, on a track chased by demons for eternity. She screams, and they laugh, and whip her. They flog her flesh until it bleeds, and when it heals, they start over, ripping her flesh again.”
I shoot to my feet, and before I know I’m doing it, I have the old man by his lapel and my cigarette hovers an inch from his naked eye. He stares at me, his face impassive. I can see the steam from my breath in the cold, and realize I’m shivering, but he is calm and still and I still cannot see his breath. He raises one hand and places it on mine, and his skin is like ice. I drop his lapel and turn away, toward the field.
“Fuck you.” I say, and watch the wind whip the snow. From somewhere far off, I can hear the sound of hooves on earth. The silence stretches. I turn back to him.
“What choice do I have?”
He opens his hands. “You’re the last. The very last. It’s a special honor, an accomplishment, really.”
I open my mouth to reply, and he holds a hand up again, a listen gesture. “Your choice, then. Stay here, and rot, and lament your woman. Or, find a way to her.”
He leans forward, the most movement I’ve seen from him since he chose the chair. “The very last, David. Don’t let her alone. It’s not right for a woman to suffer without her man.”
He leans back, looks out at the snow, and that slight smile plays across his mouth. After a moment, he stands, thrust his hands in his pockets, and heads for the stairs. I watch him step down them, his bare feet slipping into the snow. At the bottom, he turns back.
“You hear the hooves, David. Decide, or they will.”
He turns to face the field again, and begins to walk. I watch him go, until he is a black speck on a whitewashed wall. The hoof beats are louder after he’s gone, as though the riders follow in his wake. They probably do. Behold, a pale horse.
I watch the fields, and imagine if I squint through the screen of snow I can see four shadows, hazy in the distance. I think of Martha, and her laugh. I feel numb. Maybe it’s just the cold, but I have my doubts. I flick the cigarette, and watch the ember soar and land and flicker, then turn, and head for the door.
I think of the warmth inside, and of the rifle in the closet.