Editor’s Note: Judith’s short story is intercut with some of her own paintings, including the featured image above.
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Winter has its way with Boston, Massachusetts; it captures and enslaves the place. The deadly cold, the snow and ice, the gloom, creep in and take over. Cars, windows, doors, all freeze hard. Snowplows, salt, shovels, tire chains, even ski poles emerge. The city succumbs, then accepts, bears down, fights on.
Yet the still young enough enjoy it. Some college girls and boys, or as they like to be known, college women and men, revert to being girls and boys again. Ironic, but true. Some ski, some skate. There are sleigh rides. They have fun in the snow.
A certain young woman, however, was not one of these winter revelers. Heather Ellen came from a long way off to Boston, to earn a Master’s degree in English at Emerson College. Used to warmer climes, the misery of a Boston winter was something she would not forget.
He was one of a thick swarm, that much he knew. The first purpose of life for all of them was to find food. This involved quite a bit. Swiftness, flexibility, a good nose. Then there was the competition, beating out the others, getting and grabbing what one could before another did.
Had he possessed a capacity for reflection he might have found it interesting that those he fought against so hard for every crumb, every morsel, were those he sought to move close to, as close as he could, for warmth. They piled up in huddles against the chilling drafts the blew though the hole where they hid. The trick here was to find a spot to rest among the hot, furry bodies yet not suffocate.
And to wait quietly until very late at night.
Heather’s one room, third floor apartment was in a big old Victorian house on Commonwealth Avenue. Wide and beautiful, Commonwealth Avenue boasted a center island of grass, blossoming trees and flowers in spring and summer. But beginning in late October this vista gradually turned into a vast field of deep white snow. With growing dismay, Heather observed the changing landscape every morning before she left for classes.
The apartment was her sanctuary. At the top of a long winding staircase, a few steps to the right, through a burnished wooden door, and there it was: one huge room, well-lit and styled as was intended by its original owners: a high vaulted ceiling, pale green walls with elaborately carved moldings, a mantlepiece, a four-poster bed, red velvet upholstered furniture, and most appreciated by Heather—-the stunning view of the Avenue. The room’s north wall was all windows, beveled glass from chair rail to ceiling. Through these windows she watched the days grow shorter and the winter deepen.
Here she nestled against the cold city. She had no awareness that she was not alone.
Sometimes, following sleep, a frenzied urge overtook him. This was not about food. He felt the heat and smelled the odors coming off some of the bodies of those close to him. A hard push in the lowest underparts of his body gnawed at him. He badly needed to be closer to the ones intoxicating him. He noticed they were those smaller than he, and somehow different; unlike the bigger, belligerent ones, who often fought him and blocked his way, they, with their strange perfume, seemed to beckon.
He needed sleep, he needed food, but he needed one of these tiny others even more, much, much more.
The work of the Imagists was the topic of discussion in Heather’s Tuesday afternoon Poetry Seminar. She loved this subject, read Ezra Pound’s Cathay from cover to cover the day before.
Dr. Lovett’s lecture addressed the pure genius of the poet. Not actually fluent in Chinese, Pound was able to “intuit meaning from the Chinese characters themselves. Chinese characters, unlike our A,B,C’s, are little pictures, copies of the dynamic operations of nature—images!”
This struck Heather as amazing, as did the fact that a whole school of poetry, based on image, emerged from Pound’s work.
That Pound was “finally judged to be a madman,” according to Dr. Lovett, led to a lively exchange about the intersection of genius and insanity; was there an actual correlation? “Debatable,” he said.
Like a lot of questions they discussed. It seemed to Heather that Dr. Lovett’s style was to lead them down more than one road, to learn to consider lots of possibilities. And she loved this stretching of her mind. She could sense the world expanding and herself with it.
And as he talked, he smiled a lot, Dr. Lovett. He was tall, fair-skinned and slightly stooped. He usually had a pipe between his lips or in his hand, always unlit. She noted that he wore oxford shirts, blue or gray, tweed jackets, silver rimmed glasses. His hair was wavy, blond turning gray. On the third finger of his left hand was a gold wedding band.
The ring meant what it meant, of course, but did not keep Dr. Lovett from being an occasional visitor to Heather’s dreams, day, or nightdreams. There was a bit of consternation in this for her, enjoyable though it was.
But she was more-or-less okay with it, and not too lonely; besides some friendships she had established with a couple of like-minded girls, there were a couple of boys; no one serious, she reported to her parents, but she did not lack a social life. Life was balanced, workable and interesting as it unfolded. “Except for the damned bitter cold,” she complained to her mother, far off in sunny Florida.
The usual silence of the hole was shattered by squeaking and scurrying. A sudden battle was joined. It was fierce, blood and fur flying everywhere. The biggest of the others fought him for every inch on the way to the small perfumed ones. He survived, but just barely. He was bitten on his right flank, and scratched below the neck.
The entire space in the dark hole was slimy, wet with his and others’ blood. By the time he reached the small fragrant one cowering in the corner he was completely undone and collapsed beside her. There he slipped into a comatose sleep.
Dr. Lovett’s assignment was to write an Imagist poem. She reread Pound’s ideas as well as his poetry.
“In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.”
And she profoundly connected to the clarity and precision of the images. Humans, emerging from a crowd, living petals in all their beauty and vulnerability, against a dark, equivalent image.
Although it was growing late, she kept reading until she finished the assignment; writing a poem, however, was another matter. The blank page of her notebook seemed to stare back at her. What she had read had been so glowing, so wonderful. Concentrating, she thought of birds, an image of freedom….colors, light green, an image of spring, of hope….
Just as her eyelids began to close, the startling sound came. She heard him, scampering, then she saw him. He was dark gray, almost black. He slithered, moving fast, across the floor right in front of her bed. She screamed. Then sickeningly, his body stretched out as he slid back into a tiny crack along the baseboard. She screamed again, and again.
His foraging was for nothing; no food, no food, no food. The gnawing ache came from his stomach, the message pounded in his little head. Just running outside of his place, out in the enormous space beyond, had not been easy. Now he was more frightened than ever. And the image of the huge, screaming monster stayed with him. With little but instinct to rely on, and no sense of the power of image, he still absorbed the sight of huge, screaming Heather; her image remained with him, and he was terrified.
It had to be done away with, that much she surely knew. A rodent, a hateful rodent. But that itself was a hateful thought: killing a living thing. Heather willed herself up and out of her bed. She had hardly slept; the encounter with him had turned the night into a restless struggle to relax.
She waited until after his lecture to explain why she had not completed the assignment. Dr. Lovett understood that she had no poem to turn in. Moreover, he seemed to pick up on her distress. Heather, his lovely student. He kindly inquired if she needed some help.
“I can’t stand to go back into my room,” she said in a panicky voice. I’m not sure what to do. I hate to kill a living creature.”
Dr. Lovett responded thoughtfully, carefully. “It’s a Boston thing,” he said. “They come in out of the cold, you know. They’re everywhere. But there is such a thing as humane exterminators,” he smiled. He snapped the buckle on his briefcase, and stepped back and away. “And there’s an oxymoron for you.”
“Okay. Okay,” she said. She realized he wanted to help; she also realized from his tone and body language that he was maintaining his professorial demeanor. Their eyes briefly met.
“Check the Yellow Pages,” he said, kindly.
“Of course,” she said.
Later in the day a man from Pest Solutions arrived with what appeared to be a metallic gingerbread house. About one foot squared, there were red poppies painted on its silver panels, topped a pointed red roof. One small door led inside.
“The bait is the cheese and peanut butter,” he explained. “The door stays open, he goes in for the food, that trips the door closed. Simple.”
“And painless?” she asked.
“Yep. He’s just trapped inside, along with some goodies, that’s all.”
“And your job is to check the door each morning. When it’s closed, he’s in there. Got it?”
“Got it. But what if there’s more than one?”
“We set up again.”
A terrible stench surrounded him. Some of the others had succumbed fighting. Many of the others had simply starved. He was starving himself, and desperate. Frightened to move, but unable to remain in the darkness amid the dead, he moved toward the dim opening and peered out.
The big room was quiet. Very slowly he crept out through the crack. A tantalizing smell of food overtook him, and led him on. He slithered across the floor soundlessly until he found the doorway, then scurried in. The metal door closed behind him but he did not stop; the food beckoned from the back corner. He fell upon it, gobbled it all up, then drifted into a deep, peaceful sleep.
It was Thursday, the third morning after the gingerbread house was installed, that Heather, with relief, saw that the door was finally closed.
She had planned for this, knew exactly what to do, and set herself to it.
The thermostat on the window registered 9 degrees. “Without the wind,” she said to herself. On went her sweater, pants and leggings. Then her boots, coat, hat, scarf and mittens. At last she picked up the gingerbread house and made her way down the stairs and out onto Commonwealth Avenue. A blast of frigid air assaulted her, but she did not pause.
As she trudged through the snow, down past the intersection of Exeter, toward the Public Gardens, she discussed a few matters with him.
Inside the gingerbread house, he had awakened and realized he was being moved. He heard sounds. He felt the motion, and then the sudden chill. He licked the few tiny crumbs from the floor and huddled for warmth in the corner. It was difficult to maintain his position; he was being jostled back and forth. The murmuring continued.
She reached the vast expanse of white that covered the Public Gardens. The wind bore down, the snow swirled around her. She continued to talk to him. “I’ve done the best I can for you,” she said. “It hasn’t been so easy for me, either, you know.” She sighed and looked around. It wouldn’t be so long now, she thought, until this tough winter ended. “Listen,” she said to him, ”here’s the plan….”
As the box holding him swayed back and forth, he slid from one side to the other. This was not something he had ever experienced; he could not hold on.
“I am going to set you down, and open the door. Then I’ll turn away. You just get out. I don’t want to see you. You go your way, and I’ll go mine. That’s how it is. We can’t be friends.”
He felt the box being lowered to the ground. The door sprung open. He stuck his nose out and sniffed. It was freezing, but he did not hesitate. He smelled freedom, and he ran.
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Judith R. Robinson* is an editor, teacher, fiction writer and poet. A 1980 summa cum laude graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, she is listed in the Directory of American Poets and Writers. She has published 75+ poems, four poetry collections, one novel, one fiction collection; edited or co-edited eleven poetry collections.
Teacher: Osher at Carnegie Mellon University, U. of Pittsburgh.
*titles and awards on request