The river valley is broad and shallow, smooth unblemished snow, from the western ridge where I stand, to the steeper eastern side. The river itself is deep and fast but it’s frozen over, and except for the line of trees along the banks, you can’t tell where it is. A mile to the south there is a set of steep rapids. The sound comes up through the snow that bridges the rocks. The snow looks smooth and solid as the rest of the valley; it’s not. The rapids eat the ice away from underneath and leave only a fragile crust to disguise the power of the water below. Snow caves, ice caves, deep, fast water — it’s all the same. If you walk there you will probably die.
In the centre of the valley, utterly alone, stands a railroad station. Red roof, brown walls, yellow trim. The door is unlocked but there is no heat. There is a crank on the wall. The crank raises a signal arm. The engineer sees the signal and stops the train. I see no tracks. The light is flat. There are no shadows, no wrinkles or hummocks, just smooth unblemished snow from one side of the valley to the other. Far to the north there is a black dot on the horizon. It was not there a while ago. I have not seen it before. It is silent but growing larger. The train is coming.
My wife is beside me. We are young, and we are on our honeymoon. We don’t yet know that we have just fallen out of love; we won’t understand that for many years. We kick off from the hilltop and head for the far side of the valley. In the trees beyond the far bank there is a tiny weathered store built of logs. There is an international border between us and the store. We are not concerned. The store sells beer and candy; we want both. Later a Customs man will come and count the tracks in the snow. He will see that two came and two left. He will not be concerned. Our skis click and hiss on the snow. The black dot gets closer. We are on a collision course with the train. It becomes absurdly important to get across the tracks before the train gets there.
We kick and glide. The train gets bigger. We are near the station — the train is very close. We cannot see the tracks. We don’t know which side of the station the train passes on. We are directly in front of the station; we are directly in front of the train. We put our backs to the station wall and watch the train coming at us. Several times we look at each other and say, “We are safe here, the train will not hit the station.”
We can see the men on the train. They are standing at the back and on the roof; they are waving and waving us away. The huge steel wing of the snowplow is unfolding from the side of the train. The steel screams as it bites deep into the snow. The men are still waving. I pivot and sprint down the hill as fast as I can. I hear a small cry behind me. My wife has crossed her skis and falls where we stood.
The plow bites all the way to last year’s grass and soil. It throws yellow clods of ice and frozen mud like a cresting wave on some tropical beach. The wave sweeps across my wife. Small gravel-size pieces land around me where I stand down the slope. The train stops. I labour back up the slope. The crew is running toward the spot where she fell.
I get there first; nothing moves. I find her feet and sweep the snow off her face. She laughs. As the train crew arrives, she gets to her feet and brushes away the ice and dirt. We are surrounded by chunks of frozen snow the size of apples and melons. The soft snow on top hit her first and cushioned the rain of heavy pieces. She keeps laughing. It is a hearty laugh; it is her way. I laugh. The train crew laughs.
We ski down the valley. We cross the river and buy beer and candy. The intensity of the moment shines through our mismatched lives and makes us think we are sharing. The heartache is yet to come. »
“Fifteen Miles South of the Arctic Circle” was the Fiction Winner in the 2012 Vancouver International Writers Festival Writing ContestFrom issue #65