The Measure of Snow
The Measure of Snow
A line of storms is closing in. We've been waiting on this for days, but I’m impatient and tired of waiting, so I start to wander aimlessly through the maze of crooked streets that wind into the heart of the city. When the snow does start, it's slow at first — teasing specs of white arcing through the evening sky — but by the time I reach the river, the flakes have grown heavy and pale. It's rush hour and people are packed into the buses and trams that are already running late. I don't want to be a part of this, so I decide to stop and watch the show. I climb onto one of those large rocks that overlook the river — those geological monuments that stand as testaments to the strength of the Urals — lean back and turn my face to the sky. The snow falls against my cheeks and melts on my lips. I imagine the scene around me preserved in miniature like a snow globe… something I can hold in my hand, shake up, and smash into pieces.
But this is no miniature wonderland. The snow is falling quickly now and has covered everything with wet, slushy patches. The wind churns the snow, blurring the buildings, the streets, the statues and churches. And there's something else: A person, or a figure, blue and hazy like a wisp of smoke, standing alone on the half-frozen river. People regularly cross the river in winter and set up ice fishing tents when the water freezes. But it's still too early in the season for that. I feel certain that whoever is out there has been watching me and, in so doing, is taking a chance that the ice will hold. Clumps of snow cascade down my face as I try to focus, but the sky is too saturated to see clearly. Just as I decide that I'm seeing things, the figure, laboring under the weight of something slung over its shoulder, starts to move down the river. I watch until it disappears beneath the old stone bridge, then I ease myself from my perch and head for the bus stop.
The snow has muted the usual bustle of rush hour. People are shuffling anxiously around the crowded sidewalks and I feel lucky to find a vacant spot at the shelter. I wedge myself into the small space between the cold cement wall and an old woman returning from her dacha. She sits hunched over a bucket of potatoes, gently rocking back and forth. Across from the stop stand the skeletal remains of an abandoned construction site, just one of many that can be found throughout the city. The unfinished brick walls rise high in some places and are heaps of rubble in others. The iron girders, covered with patches of white, appear fractured and isolated. Even through the heavy blanket of snow, the evening sky hints at the blue of twilight.
An agitated man circulates around the space in front of me, kicking at the fresh layers of snow. One forceful shot sends the wet stuff straight into a gust of wind and all over the front of my coat. I rise to confront him but, just as I do, there's a disturbance in the crowd. I hope the commotion means the bus is in sight. I ask the man what is happening and he shouts that it's just some bum, then goes back to kicking at the snow. I sit back down and let out a sigh. I'm used to dealing with the beggars and gypsies, but there are times when I just want to get home, and this is one of those times. But I'm acutely aware of the bum’s presence and the growing agitation of the crowd. I can feel him closing in and try to avoid making eye contact by focusing again on the ruins across the street. I fight the urge to turn toward him, though the desire to do so is burning. The harder I fight, the stronger the urge becomes. It's overwhelming. I will have to look at him, but just as I start to turn my head the man in front of me yells, “get out of here, no one has any money for you!”
The harshness of his voice cuts through the muffled air. I want to confront him again, but before I can say anything, I’m staring into the face of the bum. He is standing before me now, slightly stooped like an old man, wrapped in a tattered coat that seems to have been fashioned from an old blanket. His beard, caked with snow, looks like it has been hastily sculpted. We're only separated by inches, but everything feels distant and removed. His eyes are opaque and he seems not to be looking at me but through me. He smiles and extends his hand. I think he's reaching for a handout, then realize he's trying to touch my face. I pull back.
“I said beat it!” the man shouts again, this time shoving the bum who falls heavily at my feet. He lies there for a moment, a defeated mass within his makeshift coat. As he struggles to pick himself up, I notice he has a bundle slung over his shoulder, just like the person I'd seen on the river. He meanders slowly through the crowd until he reaches a row of buildings. Once there, he stops before an alley and begins brushing a spot of snow with his foot. He does this repeatedly, circling as if he's searching for some lost object. Finally, he reaches down and picks something off the ground. I can't see what it is at first, but I watch as he turns it over in his hand, examining it as if he’s found something valuable… and it’s when he holds it up to a streetlight I see that it's just an empty bottle. Bottles are often collected and either traded in for a few kopeks or a cheap refill at a nearby kiosk. I'm captivated by how intently he seems to be examining his new find, and I continue to watch until he finally puts the bottle into his backpack and disappears into the alley like a ghost. This city is full of ghosts, I think, as the bus pulls into a slow, lumbering halt.
When I get on the bus, I rest my head against the window and listen to the tires grind through the snow. I try not to think about what awaits me at home. Misha is working but hasn't gotten paid in months and has started drinking again. Neither of us gets paid regularly, but my job is steadier than his, and that's what bothers him most. He likes to pretend that things are still as they were when we were first married, when he had a successful career in the military, before his position was dissolved. He can't stand it when I parcel out money and manage the budget. I try to stop him from spending what little we have on vodka by convincing him that we don't have anything; that we're broke. He can be relentless, though, and it's often easier to buy a cheap bottle and let him pass out peacefully. But not tonight, I decide as the bus drops me at my corner. I stand before a dull yellow kiosk, its barred windows lined with bottles of vodka, beer and packs of cheap cigarettes. I just stand there, I don't move, until the low rumble of the bus fades into a cloud of snow.
The clanging of my keys against the security door echoes through the corridor. If I'm lucky, Misha won't be home, which will give me time to unwind and prepare for whatever mood he might be in. This hope is dashed, however, as I step through the door to a heavily slurred “Nataaashaaa!” bellowing from the kitchen.
“Good news, I got paid today!”
The kitchen is filled with the blue haze of cigarette smoke and Misha is sitting at the table where he has arranged stacks of bread, cheese, sausage, sardines and a bottle of vodka — the good kind — that is already ¼ empty. He picks up a small slice of bread that has fallen to the side of his plate, places a thin slice of cheese on it, and holds it out to me.
“No thanks” I say, “I'm hungry … I'm not having bread and cheese for dinner.”
“Well, there's some leftover pasta too… you can finish that.”
“I'm not eating leftover pasta.”
“Not good enough for you?”
I recognize the obvious invitation to enter yet another circular argument, but after all that has already happened, I simply don't have the energy and seize the silence to gather whatever’s left in the freezer for a decent dinner. To my surprise, there's a bag of pelmeni, so I begin to boil a pot of water. I stand over the stove with my back to Misha. As the water heats up, a thin line of bubbles emerges from the bottom of the pot and rises to the surface. The steam washes over my face, which is still cold from the long walk home. In the window next to the stove, cracked and covered with frost, I can see a reflection of Misha sitting at the table, his hands folded in front of him, his head slightly bowed. When the water comes to a boil, steam covers the window so I can no longer see his reflection. I stand over the pot, mesmerized by the movement of the water, until the spell is broken by the sound of Misha's voice.
“Natasha—what are you cooking?”
“Pelmeni,” I say, regaining my composure. “Do you want some?”
“Sure,” he says. “Beats bread and cheese, I guess.”
By the time the stuff is ready, Misha has the living room all set up: lights low, table set, drinks waiting. We pass a quiet dinner over small talk about work and make vague plans to catch up with friends we rarely see anymore. After we finish, we lean back with our drinks in hand; mine wine, his vodka. Misha lights a cigarette and lets go a long curl of smoke. Then he pours himself another drink, sits back and starts picking at the label of the bottle. Once the bottle has been stripped clean, he rolls the label into a ball, turning it over in his hand, smoothing the edges with his fingers. This is a habit he's had for as long as I've known him. It seems to soothe him, so I don't say anything, but I can only watch him do this for so long. Soon I am no longer looking at him at all, I am looking past him, and that’s when I spot the picture on the bookshelf. It’s an old one — frayed and unframed — of Misha posing proudly in his Army uniform. And there are other things too: plaques, patches, ribbons and a gold Soviet star — all once prized possessions now reduced to relics gathering dust.
After dinner, Misha goes back to his bottle and I go back to the kitchen, make a cup of instant coffee and try to read a magazine. Misha starts singing, occasionally prodding me to join in. I close the door just hard enough to let him know that I won't be joining him. The kitchen is small and cramped. I study the cracks in the window and realize I have no idea how they got there. Maybe it just gave way in the cold one day. They used to bother me, but now I'm drawn to them and often try to find different patterns embedded within their splintered design. Misha offered to replace the window once, but I told him not to — it was part of our home now. He has stopped singing and started pacing around the living room. Knowing he can pace for hours before finally passing out, I take one last gulp of coffee and throw the cup into the sink. It shatters. Shards of porcelain shoot upward in the basin. I brush past Misha and run into the bedroom.
The next thing I know, I'm lying awake in bed with Misha snoring beside me. I usually end up on the couch when he's like this, so I wrap the blanket around me and head for that familiar spot. I don't expect to sleep, but am still annoyed that I can't. The curtains are open just enough to let the light from outside fill the room. I don't have to get up to know that it has stopped snowing, that drifts have piled high against the doors and windows, that the courtyard is silent and hollow.
I wish it was still snowing, though, only because I want to hear the sound of flakes pelting the window. But there are no flakes and there is no sound. I don't even hear Misha snoring anymore. I look to make sure he's still in bed, and that's when I notice the dark shape on the table. Light has saturated the room and seems to be gathering around this single spot — a stark silhouette carved into a world of white. I reach out and begin to trace its form with my finger. With each pass I make, the shape becomes a little clearer… and then it hits me: this mysterious figure is nothing more than Misha's half-empty vodka bottle. I reach out again and trace its curves, following the smooth outline of the glass. But the light is playing tricks and the lines around the bottle seem to change shape with every pass. I let my finger stray from the bottle and the lines follow. I do this again, and again the lines follow my movements. Each time the outline becomes more disembodied. The cold is falling heavily through the window. I can feel its weight moving around me, filling the room. But this doesn't bother me now. I go back to the bottle, and those lines, oscillating, unraveling in this shallow space.