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Horgan - Black Snowflakes

SNOWFLAKES "Here we are," my father said, at a half-open cabin door. We entered my grandfather's room, which was not like a room in a house, for none of its lines squared with the others but met only to reflect the curvature of the ship. Across the room, under two portholes whose silk curtains were drawn, my grandfather lay in a narrow brass bed. He lay at a slight slope, with his arms outside the covers, and he wore a white nightgown. I had never before seen him in anything but his formal day and evening clothes. He looked white— there was hardly a difference of color between his beard and his cheeks and his brow. He did not turn his head, only his eyes. He seemed suddenly dreadfully small, and fearfully cautious, where be- fore he had gone his way magnificently, ignoring whatever threatened him with inconvenience, rudeness or disadvantage. My mother stood by his side, and Tante Bep was at the foot of the bed, wearing her black shawl and peasant skirts. "Yes, come, Richard," Grosspa said in a faint, wheezy voice, looking for me without turning his head. I went to his side, and he moved his hand an inch or two toward me—not enough to risk such a pain as had thrown him down the night before, but enough to call for a response. I gave him my hand and he tightened his fingers over mine. "Will you come to see me?" he said. "Where?" I asked in a loud, clear voice. My parents looked at each other, as if to inquire how in the world the chasms which divide age from youth, and pain from health, and sorrow from innocence could ever be bridged. "In Germany," he whispered. He shut his eyes and held my hand, and I had a vision of Germany which may have been sweetly near his own; for what I saw were the pieces of brilliantly colored cardboard scenery that belonged to the toy theater he had once brought me from Germany. "Yes, Grosspa," I replied, "in Germany." "Yes," he whispered, opening his eyes and making the sign of the Cross on my hand with his thumb. Then he looked at my mother, who understood at once. "You go now with Daddy," she said, "and wait for me on deck. We must leave the ship soon. Schnell, now, skip!" My father took me along the corridor and down the grand stairway. The ship's orchestra was playing somewhere—it sounded like the Waldorf. We went out to the deck just as the ship's whistle let go again, and now it shook me gloriously and terribly. I covered my ears, but still 1 was held by that immense, deep voice. For a moment, when it stopped, the ordinary sounds around us did not come close. It was still snowing—heavy, slow, thick flakes, each like several flakes stuck together. A cabin boy came along beating a brass cymbal, calling out for all visitors to leave the ship. I began to fear that my mother might be taken away to sea after my father and I were forced ashore. I saw her at last. She came toward us with a rapid, light step and, saying nothing, turned us to the gangway, and we went down. She was wearing a little spotted veil, and with one hand she lifted it and put her handkerchief to her mouth. She was weeping and I was abashed by her grief. We hurried to the dock street, and there we lingered to watch the Kronprinzessin Cecilie sail. We did not talk. It was bitter cold. Wind came strongly from the West, and then, after a third great whistle-blast the ship slowly began to change—she moved like water itself as she left the dock, guided by three tugboats that made heavy black smoke in the thick air. At last I could see all of the ship at one time. I was amazed how tall and narrow she was. Her four funnels rose like a city's chimneys against the blowy sky. Stern first, she moved out into the river. I squinted at her with my head on one side and knew exactly how I would make a small model of her when I got home. In midstream she turned slowly to head toward the Lower Bay. She looked gaunt and proud and topheavy as she ceased backing and turning and began to steam down the river and away. "Oh, Dan!" my mother cried in a broken sob, and put her face against my father's shoulder. He folded his arm around her. Their faces were white. Just then a break in the sky across the river lightened the snowy day, and I stared in wonder at the change. My father, watching after the liner, said to my mother: "Like some wounded old lion crawling home to die." "Oh, Dan," she sobbed, "don't, don't !" I could not imagine what they were talking about. I tugged at my mother's arm and said with excitement, pointing to the thick flakes everywhere about us, and against the light beyond, "Look, look, the snowflakes are all black!" My mother suddenly could bear no more. She leaned down and shook me, and her voice was strong with anger: "Richard, why do you say black! What nonsense. Stop it. Snowflakes are white, Richard. White! White! When will you ever see things as they are! Oh!" "Come, everybody," my father said. "I have the taxi waiting." "But they are black !" I cried. "Quiet!" my father commanded. We were to return to Dorchester on the night train. All day I was too proud to mention what I alone seemed to remember, but after my nap, during which I refused to sleep, my mother came to me. "You think I have forgotten," she said. "Well, I remember. We will go and arrange for your presents." My world was full of joy again. The first two presents were easy to find— there was a little shop full of novelties a block from the hotel, and there I bought for Anna a folding package of views of New York and for Mr. Schmitt a cast-iron savings bank, made in the shape of the Statue of Liberty, to receive dimes. It was harder to think of something Ted would like. My mother let me consider many possibilities among the variety available in the novelty shop, but the one thing I wanted for Ted I did not see. Finally 1 asked the shopkeeper: "Do you have any straw hats for horses?" "What?" "Straw hats for horses, with holes for their ears to come through. They wear them in summer." "Oh. I know what you mean. No, we don't." My mother took charge. "Then, Richard, I don't think this gentleman has what we need for Ted. Let's go back to the hotel. I think we will find it there." "What will it be?" "You'll see." When tea had been served in her room, she asked, "What do horses love?" "Hay. Oats." "Yes. What else?" Her eyes sparkled playfully. I followed her glance, and knew the answer. "1 know! Sugar!" "Exactly"—and she made a little packet of sugar cubes in a Waldorf envelope from the desk in the corner, and my main concern about the trip to New York was satisfied. At home I could not wait to present my gifts. Would they like them? Whether Anna and Mr. Schmitt did or not, I never really knew. Anna accepted her folder of views and opened it up to let the pleated pages fall in one sweep, and said, "When we came to New York from the old country I was a baby and I do not remember one thing about it." Mr. Schmitt took his Statue of Liberty savings bank, turned it over carefully, and said, "Well. . . ." But Ted—Ted very clearly loved my gift, for he nibbled the sugar cubes off my outstretched palm until there were none left, and then he bumped at me with his hard, itchy head, making me laugh and hurt at the same time. "He likes sugar," I said to Mr. Schmitt. "Ja. Do you want to ride?" Life, then, was much as before until the day, a few weeks later, that we received a cablegram telling us that my grandfather had died in Munich. My father came home from the office to comfort my mother. They told me the news in our long living room, with the curtains drawn. I listened, a lump of pity came into my throat for the look on my mother's face, but I did not feel anything else. "He dearly loved you," they said. "May I go now?" I asked. They were shocked. What an unfeeling child. Did he have no heart? How could the loss of so great and dear a figure in the family not move him? But I had never seen anything dead; I had no idea of what death was like; Grosspa had gone away before and I had soon ceased to miss him. What if they did say now that I would never see him again? They shook their heads and sent me off. Anna was more offhand than my parents. "You know," she said, letting me watch her work at the deep zinc laundry tubs in the dark, steamy basement, "that your Grosspa went home to Germany to die, don't you?" "Is that the reason he went?" I asked. "That's the reason." "Did he know it?" "Oh, yes, sure he knew it." "Why couldn't he die right here?" "Well, when our time comes, maybe we all want to go back where we came from." Her voice contained a doleful pleasure, but the greatest mystery in the world was still closed to me. When I left her, she raised her old tune under the furnace pipes, and I wished I was as happy and full of knowledge as she was. My time soon came. On the following Saturday, I was watching for Mr. Schmitt and Ted when I heard heavy footsteps running up the front porch and someone shaking the door knob, as if he had forgotten there was a bell. 1 went to see. It was Mr. Schmitt. He was panting and he looked wild. When I opened the door, he ran past me, calling out, "Telephone! Let me have the telephone!" I pointed to it in the front hall, where it stood on a gilded wicker taboret. He began frantically to click the receiver hook. I was amazed to see tears roll down his cheeks. "What's the matter, Mr. Schmitt?" I heard my mother coming along the upstairs hallway from her sitting room. Mr. Schmitt put the phone down suddenly and pulled off his hat, and shook his head. "What's the use?" he said. "I know it is too late. I was calling the ice plant to send someone." "Good morning, Mr. Schmitt," my mother said, coming downstairs. "What on earth is the matter?" "My poor old Ted," he said, waving his hat toward the street. "He just fell down and died up the street in front of the Weiners' house." I ran out of the house and up the sidewalk to the Weiners' house, and sure enough, there was the ice wagon, and still in the shafts, lying heavy and gone on his side, was Ted. There lay death on the asphalt pavement. I confronted the mystery at last. The one eye that I could see was open. Ted's teeth gaped apart, and his long tongue touched the street. His body seemed twice as big and heavy as before. His front legs were crossed, and the great horn cup of the upper hoof was slightly tipped, the way he used to rest it in ease. In his fall he had twisted the shafts that he had pulled for so many years. His harness was awry. Water dripped from the back of the hooded wagon. Its wheels looked as if they had never turned. What would ever turn them? "Never," I said, half aloud. I knew the meaning of this word now. In another moment my mother came and took me back to our house, and Mr. Schmitt settled down on the curbstone to wait for people to arrive and take away the leavings of his changed world. "Richard," my mother said, "don't go out again until I tell you." 1 went and told Anna what I knew. She listened with her head to one side, her eyes half closed, and she nodded at my news and sighed. "Poor old Ted," she said, "he couldn't even crawl home to die." This made my mouth fall open, for it reminded me of something I had heard before, and all day I was subdued and private. Late that night I woke in a storm of grief so noisy that my parents heard the wild gusts of weeping and came to ask what the trouble was. I could not speak at first, for their tender, warm, bed-sweet presences doubled my emotion, and I sobbed against them as they held me. But at last, when they said again, "What's this all about, Richard? Richard?" I was able to say brokenly, "It's all about Ted." It was true, if not all the truth, for I was thinking also of Grosspa crawling home to die, and I knew what that meant now, and what death was like. I imagined Grosspa's heavy death, with one eye open, and his sameness and his difference all mingled, and I wept for him at last, and for myself if I should die, and for my ardent mother and my sovereign father, and for the iceman's old horse, and for everyone. "Hush, dear, hush, Richard," they said. A pain in my head began to throb remotely as my outburst diminished, and another thought entered. I said bitterly: "But they were black! Really they were!" They looked at each other and then at me, but I was too spent to continue, and I fell back on my pillow. Even if they insisted that snowflakes were white, I knew that when seen against the light, falling out of the sky into the dark water all about the Kronprinzessin Cecilie, they were black. Black snowflakes against the sky. Black. THE END 36


Horgan - Black Snowflakes
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