Charles and Maggie lived deep in the hills of Kentucky. They had an old tractor and an orange ATV and a cellar stocked with smoked meats and canned vegetables, so they rarely worried about the distance to town—a gas pump, a country kitchen and a church.
The snows, though, could be a cause for worry. The county-run plow wouldn’t risk the four-mile dirt and gravel drive ascending from their cabin to the mountain pass, which took another twelve miles to meander into town. Charles rigged a corrugated metal roofing panel to the front of the tractor and strapped chains on its tires, and that rudimentary plow served well when God was kind for the winter. But, though the people of the hollers were kind to God, in prayer and services, He didn’t often return that kindness in the cold months, when ice draped the trees and snow piled thick in the valleys.
As Maggie’s pregnancy became apparent, the December sky roiled and heaved into slivers of steel, and winter’s first blanket settled itself early. Maggie washed pots with a rag by the kitchen window and, with a small, calm smile, watched the menace building outside. She trusted her body as she trusted God. She felt wonderful, beautiful, and since spring, when Maggie’s church friends first learned she and Charles were trying for a baby, they had passed along vitamins and onesies and bottles, nursing pads and rattles, a crib and a Johnny Jump Up, a portable food masher and little jars, booties and bibs and books. Their home was ready, and Maggie was ready, but Charles desperately wanted her to see the town doctor before the weather got any worse. He wanted the reassurance of facts, of medicine, but he only had the timeline for comfort—Maggie being three months along in December meant a June birth, most likely, which meant most any potential crises would fall outside winter’s grasp.
The clouds murmured, dusted themselves, and by the second week of December began to salt the earth in earnest. At first, Charles spun out his makeshift snow plow once a day, then twice a day. He’d chopped wood all through September and October, stacking logs high in the den, piling them on the porch, along the outer walls, in pyramids between the shed and the cabin.
There was nothing Charles could do when the snow won, as it did for at least a short while every winter. Later, normally. January or February. The third week of December unfolded, and he awoke one morning to a bright white square where the sky and spruce trees typically showed through the window. He squeezed Maggie’s arm.
Peeking over the down comforter, she said, “Mercy.” The light was strange and muffled, as if the house were sunk in cotton batting.
“I don’t imagine the tractor’s gonna do a lick of good against that,” Charles said. He pulled Maggie close, relishing her heat, the soft curve of her belly.
“How much of that was just the wind, do you think?”
“A fair portion, I’m sure.” Charles looked at the window, like an oversized note card—so white! “But a draft that high, just on this one side, well…that still has to be a few feet all around, I imagine.”
“My. Guess this means Christmas alone?”
“Just the two of us,” Charles agreed. “Three of us, that is.”
Any thoughts of productivity laid to rest, the couple slept three more hours, happy to be warm, abandoned on their quiet homestead.
Charles heated handfuls of rags to press along the front door’s edges, and jimmied and plied the door until it finally pulled open—to reveal another wall of whiteness.
“Mags. Come look at this.”
She padded around the corner in her slippers and thick bathrobe, her long black hair in tangles and knots. “Well I’ll be. How deep? Is it just another draft pushed up?”
Charles grabbed the broom by the fireplace and, holding the bristled end, drove the handle into the wall of snow. They peeked down the narrow tunnel: no sky, sun, or trees. Charles tried driving the handle up high, at an angle: no light came down.
“We’re buried. I don’t believe it, but we’re buried.”
“But the chimney?”
Charles nodded, “It’d be bad if the fire wasn’t going all night. I mean, I have to think the snow couldn’t go that high…but I don’t know what to think, I just know it’s good we had it going, ‘cause even if the whole cabin’s under, the heat kept that passage open. We’d be dead of carbon monoxide by now if it hadn’t.”
“That’s very comforting, dear. Do you want potatoes?” Maggie asked.
They ate potatoes by lamplight, then read by the fire, taking turns feeding logs to its crackling orange tongues. They passed their sleepy days that way, aware of time only in that it had to be passing, and the grandfather clock clicked away the hours and nights in place of the sun.
Charles was checking the smoked ham hock in its pot on the fire, ladling the meat’s juices over the potatoes to tenderize them, to make something like a holiday meal. It was Christmas Eve.
He heard a whimper behind him, and the sound mounted to a scream of instant, furious pain—“Charles!” He dropped the ladle and sprinted into the bedroom.
“Mags—Maggie!” he shouted when he reached her. “Oh, God. Oh God, it’s gonna be okay, Mags, hold on.”
Blood soaked through her nightgown and stained the sheet beneath her thighs, an inky maroon puddle in the oil lamp’s glow. Maggie’s eyes were wet, the nightgown clung to her skin and she clutched at the blankets with bloody fingers.
“Charles, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—help me I’m sorry, what’s happening—”
He grasped Maggie’s shoulders and pressed her forehead to his lips, kissed her cheeks, guided her hair behind her ears, off her shoulders, off her face. “It’s okay. I’m here, Mags, we’re fine. I’ll be right back, okay, I’ll be right back, we’re fine.”
Charles tore through the cabin. He pulled the ham hock off the fire and grabbed a large pot from the kitchen. He opened the front door and piled snow into the pot with his bare hands and shoved it directly into the fire to let the snow melt, then boil, and he grabbed a lantern and held it to the bathroom medicine cabinet, pushing bottles aside with shaky fingers, his mind stumbling to keep up with its instincts and reason. Maggie was in pain. Aspirin. Aspirin thins blood, she’s bleeding, she’ll bleed out—bleed out? Jesus, bleed out. No aspirin. A muscle relaxant. Wasn’t a miscarriage something to do with contractions, with muscles—miscarriage. Miscarriage. Charles dug his shaky thumb into the cap of the muscle relaxants, fighting the childproof top. The pills scattered across the sink. He picked up one. Two. To the kitchen, poured a cup of water from the pitcher they’d been keeping on the counter, back to Maggie.
She looked sallow and desperate and primal in the unstable light. Charles put one hand behind her neck, craning her head up, and eased the two pills into her mouth, grabbed the cup and held it to her mouth to drink. The water dribbled between Maggie’s lips and down her chin. She sobbed.
“It hurts. Charles I’m scared it hurts, it hurts, it hurts—”
Dizziness threatened his knees and heart. Charles told her to keep pressure on the wound, knowing that made no sense but having no idea what else to say, and ran to grab dishtowels from the kitchen and drop them into the water simmering in the hearth. The cloth squares bubbled and undulated in the pot like sacs of fish eggs ready to pop. Maggie moaned in the bedroom. Charles looked over at the pot on the floor with the ham hock and potatoes. A thin layer of fat was congealing on the broth’s surface. He leapt up and squirted dish soap onto his hands in the kitchen, scrubbed it into his calluses. He picked at the permanent oily stains about his short nails, plunged his hands into the water pitcher and shook them furiously until they rinsed as clean as they could be. He pinched the dishtowels from the boiling water and barely registered the pain.
Time slowed for a moment, looking down at his beautiful wife, his wife, lost and suffering in a fortress of snow. It slowed for a moment. Sanitized rags were for childbirth, weren’t they. They weren’t for child deaths. Charles had no idea what to do: surely and calmly, he realized this. He peeled Maggie’s nightgown away from her thighs. He pulled down her panties. He’d first done that ten years before. They were wet then, too; she was nineteen, had waited nineteen years for him, and she was beyond ready. He’d waited twenty for her, and when he first saw it—saw her, glistening, pink—it nearly sent him over the edge before they could consummate the marriage.
Now, there was nothing of that pinkness; all the colors ran red and black. Since it was the only coaching Charles could remember, he commanded, “Push.” And Maggie did, and it was messy. Charles pressed the moist, boiled dishtowels against her inner thighs, around that opening from which this hell was springing.
“Push.” What in God’s name was he saying?
“Push.” Push what, blood until she dies?
“Push.” And Maggie was screaming again.
“Push.” And Maggie was quiet.
Charles said, “Push,” and there was something in his hands that wasn’t blood.
She pushed one final time, without his guidance.
Charles looked at what lay partially cradled in his hands. The dizziness was back. Maggie was out: eyes shut, inert. That was best. He looked down again, and what he saw wasn’t the bare beginnings of a baby.
It was puppies.
Charles gathered the puppies in his arms and set them before the fire in the den. They squirmed and gargled. He walked to the laundry room and opened the pantry which had been the baby closet since spring. He picked up a small knitted blanket. Charles returned to the hearth, knelt, arranged the yellow blanket into a nest, and transferred the puppies to the blanket-nest individually. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Five puppies. Their eyes were sealed and they wriggled atop and between one another, their little mouths parting and closing in search of milk.
Charles walked back to the bedroom, where Maggie lay motionless, her legs still splayed. He gently cleaned her thighs with a wet dishtowel. He placed another towel between her legs and straightened them, then pulled down her nightgown and tucked the comforter around her chest. Her breaths were even. Charles kissed her forehead and extinguished the lamp.
He grabbed the washcloths from the bathroom and tossed them into the pot on the fire; the water was still boiling. The wind blew outside. It transferred through the snow-insulated cabin as a low thrum. Charles crossed the den to the bookshelf and picked a selection from the shelf Maggie had labeled “MOMMY’S CORNER” in blue glitter-glue on a piece of pink construction paper cut in the shape of a stork. He flipped to “D” in the index. “Daddy’s Checklist. Decorating the Nursery. Delivery Options. Diaper Changing Essentials.” He flipped to “P” in the index. “Packing for the Hospital. Pelvic Pressure. Pet and Animal Safety.” Charles flipped to that. It turned out dogs could carry bacteria such as campylobacter and salmonella, which a pregnant woman ought to avoid, and that it was wise to accustom a dog to a newborn by bringing back a blanket carrying the baby’s scent from the hospital. Boundaries had to be set for the dog once the newborn was home in the nursery. Charles returned to “P.” “Placenta, Preeclampsia, Premature Birth.” Charles flipped to that. Useless. Preemies were prone to underdeveloped lungs and feeding troubles, but according to the book, they were not prone to being puppies.
Charles replaced the book and returned to the fire. He wrung the boiled washcloths out on the rug and shook them to dissipate the heat. The puppies appeared to have fallen asleep. He picked up the least entangled puppy and wiped its face, its belly, its little legs and tail, cleansing the blood and mucus from its fur. It suckled the air and whined until he put it back in the nest. Charles carefully pulled another puppy from the pile and wiped it off. It was dappled gray, with white feet. He put it back in the nest. He cleaned the last three puppies, changing washcloths as they soiled, and watched the fire as the quivering pile of puppies fell into a quiet slumber.
The grandfather clock chimed. It was Christmas. Charles put the ham hock and potatoes back on the rack. He stirred the broth, now and then, and stared into the bricks of the hearth.
When Charles awoke, the fire was weak, just an intermittent flame and the ashen glow of logs carrying their last heat. His back crackled from sleeping on the hard floor. It was too dim to read the grandfather clock, but Charles saw two dark shapes about a foot away from the blanket-nest on opposite sides, and he grabbed them, terrified to feel how cool the puppies were. He realized they were crawling into the darkness in search of their mother. Charles edged closer to the fire, stoked it, and tucked the two puppies under his sweater, atop his belly. He hunched over and pushed slow, hot breaths through the sweater, massaging the puppies through the yarn. A tiny haunch extended, a little head shook side to side: they were okay. The other puppies voiced aggravation as Charles lifted them to tuck the voyagers at the warm bottom of the mass, but they settled quickly, and he fed some kindling and a hearty log to the fire.
Charles lit the lamp by the bookshelf and turned to the grandfather clock: quarter past five, in the morning, he assumed. Grabbing two washcloths from the floor, he pulled out the crusty, burnt Christmas Eve meal. A mewling from the nest. Charles jabbed the charred ham hock with his thumb, licked it. Definitely ruined. More mewling. He grabbed the lamp and crossed to the bedroom door.
Maggie was still buried beneath the comforter on her back, arms atop the blanket with her pale palms upturned. Her head fell to one side on the pillow, her lips barely parted; she would have looked peaceful, if she had ever been the type to sleep on her back, but she always slept on her belly with her elbows hitched out at awkward angles that threatened to oust Charles from the bed. He thought she looked clinical, exposed. Dead. Charles touched her lips. She rustled.
“Shush. It’s okay. You’re okay.” He rubbed her shoulder and stroked her arm. “You’re okay, Maggie. How do you feel?”
“I feel awful. Is our baby okay?” Maggie opened her eyes and her mouth danced a quavering line between hope and desolation. “Can you tell? There was so much blood.”
Charles stared at the comforter. Maggie was much better at getting stains out of the wash than he was. He wasn’t sure if it was okay to put a down comforter in the washing machine. The machine wasn’t working, but never mind that, was it okay to soak a blanket filled with feathers?
Maggie touched his arm. “I lost the baby, didn’t I?”
“There isn’t a baby. Get some rest, honey. You rest up. I love you.” Charles fetched another muscle relaxant from the bathroom for Maggie, tucked her in. When her eyes shut, he closed the bedroom door.
His hand rested on the cool knob; blood crusted his nails. It would be different if Maggie had agreed to see the doctor when Charles first asked. And he hadn’t just asked. He had begged her to go, but she replied that her body was the dominion of her husband and God alone. Humbled by Maggie’s pure convictions, flattered by those words, Charles had backed down, but he now understood how weak he had been. He hadn’t protected his wife.
And what now? A pillow pressed deep into the blanket-nest until nothing moved beneath his weight? A systematic wringing of soft little necks? Charles couldn’t back down this time, couldn’t fail as the protector and provider, so when he turned to the growing fire, and the five fuzzy shapes within the nest, he thought: food, clothing, shelter.
Charles scooped more snow into the water pot and set it above the flames. The mewling was louder. He pulled two pink onesies from the baby closet and some scissors from Maggie’s craft box and cut off the leg and arm sleeves at the shoulders and thighs. He folded the remaining torso sections of the tiny outfits and laid them in the craft box. Charles fetched bottles and nipples from the baby closet and hesitated by the simmering water, fairly certain he was meant to sterilize them first but aware of a yipping near his right foot. He dropped the bottles in the pot and stepped over the nest to search the laundry room pantry for powdered formula, where he found that the box provided detailed instructions for mixing formula according to human nutritional standards, but lacked a conversion chart for his current needs.
The omission seemed negligent—but why on God’s green earth does that seem so, Charles stopped to think, and into this pause slipped a memory. When Charles was a boy he had a little beagle mix named Bratwurst who survived on table scraps alone and never ate a kibble, and he was the happiest, healthiest dog—
And Charles stopped thinking just as quickly. He stirred the powder into a jug of water and grabbed the five cutoff sleeves. The puppies’ faces were tiny pink things, eyes glued shut, ears just miniscule flaps. They squeezed and looped into one another like fuzzy gray and white intestines, with one pup jet black. Charles picked that one up first. It was the runt—he carefully turned it in his palm—she was the runt. He guided her into one of the pink sleeves and set her in the nest. The next puppy had a smushed face and steely coloration about his head and tail, and he arched his back and cried and cried as Charles slid him into another sleeve. He rubbed the puppy’s tummy as the others began to cry. The water was boiling. Charles fitted the rest of the puppies into their sleeves.
Their mouths wouldn’t open wide enough to take the bottles’ nipples in fully, so Charles had to cradle each puppy on its back in his hand and let the milk dribble past their thin lips. The meal quieted them, and they drowsed together in a warm pink lump.
Charles pried open the front door. Snow. He tore back the curtains in every room. Snow. He thought about dousing the fire and wriggling to the rooftop but the passage wasn’t wide enough; he would only lodge himself and suffocate, and assuming he snapped his skeleton apart to fit through the chimney and somehow came out operable on the other side, the ATV and tractor would still be buried in that thick, ungodly pallet of snow, with no way to locate them or get them to the surface. He opened the front door one more time. Snow.
He remembered playing outside during winter breaks as a child, digging deep in the snow and channeling through the compressed powder, carving intricate webs of frosted passages invisible to anyone on the surface, and how his mother used to call him back inside each day to peel away his wet, frigid clothing and warm his hands around bowls of soup or chili. And now, Charles saw the impenetrable white wall beyond the doors, the windows, envisioned the four-mile journey to the pass and the twelve-mile stretch to town, and there was no one, there would be no one, to call him to the surface.
“What are these?”
Charles had been on a vigil, feeding the puppies every couple hours, kneading them into releasing themselves atop open cloth diapers he’d spread in a mat on the floor. He had plucked a scant meal of burnt potatoes for himself and fallen asleep on the rug. He moved to stoke the fire.
“Charles—what are these?” Maggie stood in the middle of the room, her hair limp with sweat, the gray nightgown stiffened into wrinkles around her bloody groin. She wrung one hand about the opposite wrist and curled and uncurled her toes, awakening into her numbed body’s sensations.
“Well…okay. Good.” Maggie struggled to open the front door. Her hands were weak. She stared, and the snow glared back, as concrete and impassable as before save the laughable dents made by Charles to boil up water. “Well…” Maggie scratched the corner of her eye. She glanced at the puppies, swaddled in their nest and makeshift cozies. “They’re cute. They’re little, aren’t they? Look like newborns. So you got the back open.”
As Maggie walked to the kitchen, Charles stood and said, “No, Maggie,” but she continued to the back door and tugged it open: white.
“You crawled out a window? What were in those pills, anyway?” Maggie returned to the den and carefully lay down by the fire, wincing and pressing a hand to her abdomen. She took a deep breath and reached out to stroke the black puppy’s neck. “Puppies on Christmas. You’re amazing.” She smiled.
Charles sat by Maggie and put a hand on her knee. “They’re not strong. We only got that powdered formula, and I don’t know that it sits well.” He paused. “I’ve been up with them most of the night. They’re hungry little guys.”
Maggie turned to Charles and asked, “Where’s their mom?”
Charles shook his head.
“Well she got in somehow and she got out somehow, where’d you burrow out? The bathroom? Is there a way out the laundry room? Did you get to the ATV?”
“Snow’s got us piled in. We’re buried. There’s no way out.”
“But—” she waved a hand at the puppies, “there’s a way in! Way out, way in.”
Charles closed his eyes. “It’s only been you and me, Maggie. It’s only been a day.” And he looked at the puppies. He looked at her stomach. “No way in or out.”
Maggie stood, steadied herself against the wall, and clapped her hands. “C’mere girl.” She whistled. “C’mere girl.” She weaved window to window to door to window, just as Charles had done. She looked under the couch and bed and in the dryer and oven and even the toilet tank. “Where’s the dog?” Maggie dug her nails into Charles’s shoulders. “Where?”
“There’s no dog. I didn’t know how to tell you when it happened—”
“—And you were scared and all that blood, I couldn’t tell you when they,” he motioned weakly to her hips, “well, when they came out.”
“You’re not saying that.”
“It’s gonna be okay.” He paused. “It’s like you say, when God gives we receive, and we love. He works in mysterious ways, and He gave you these to give to us, and…they’re healthy. I love you, it’ll be all right.”
Maggie clenched her nightgown in her hands and released it and touched her belly and snapped her hands back and then held them away like a poison. “I lost our baby not my mind. Oh God I lost our baby—” Maggie sobbed.
Charles picked up the dappled puppy and held it out, “But you didn’t. You didn’t lose our babies.”
When Maggie collapsed, Charles carried her to the bed and put a glass of water on the nightstand.
As the grandfather clock ticked away the final hours of Christmas, Charles constructed the bassinet by the fire. It had been dissembled into slats and legs, stored by the dryer to save space until the baby came. He tried to nail the pieces together quietly, shaking the bassinet to test its sturdiness before lining it with yarn blankets and depositing the swaddled puppies. They looked content in there—they wriggled less. Charles fiddled with an old fishing vest and, between awkwardly stabbing himself with a needle and stopping to reassess the logistics, succeeded in jerry-rigging a nursing vest. The malleable bottle liners dropped into the vest’s many pockets to attach to sewn-in nipples poking through holes in the pockets’ bottoms. With the puppies in a pile on the rug, he could lie on his side and guide them to the nipples. Their little paws kneaded the pockets and dinner was served.
They looked so fragile in the orange glow—their soft bellies, their tiny awkward legs, their blind, squirming movements. Charles had to make sure that the smallest, the black one, had her fill of milk each time. She tended to get jostled away from the teats. The puppies were back in the bassinet and Charles was just unbuttoning his vest when the bedroom door opened.
Hollow-eyed, Maggie looked at the bassinet, but Charles wasn’t sure she really saw it. She had changed into her pink bathrobe.
“Maggie, you’re up.”
She walked to the kitchen, picked up one of the pitchers of cold water—Charles had been melting containers of snow throughout the day—and turned into the bathroom. Charles heard the water splash into the tub. She brought a kettle of water to the tub, then a mixing bowl of water.
Charles touched her arm as she returned for another pitcher. “Let me warm you up some bath water, Mags. Just a few minutes, let me get you a warm bath ready, that’s all cold.”
She put the pitcher down and returned to the bathroom. Uncertain, Charles put two big pots of water into the fire and checked the puppies, whose chests rose and fell in slow unison. He finally took a deep breath, picked up the lantern and went into the hall. He felt Maggie’s bathrobe under his feet as he stepped into the dark, chilly bathroom. There were only a couple of inches of water in the tub; she sat there naked, knees pulled to her breasts. Her skin looked shiny, her hair gooey. Charles saw an empty body wash bottle cast aside on the tile and realized Maggie had poured its entire contents on her head. She rubbed the gel up and down her arms, up and down, up and down. She hadn’t wet her skin first. The gel spread around like jam.
Charles knelt by the tub with a cup from the sink and dunked it in the shallow bath. He tilted Maggie’s head back and carefully poured water along her scalp line, letting it run through her hair. “Come on, help me rinse this. You got too much soap here.” He poured cups and cups over her head and tried to massage the soap out with his other hand, but the water quickly turned to pure lather and her body was still sticky all over. “You’re freezing, this ain’t working, I’m getting the pots off the fire, you stay here.”
As Charles wrapped towels around his hands and reached in to grab the first pot, he heard laughter. It was almost like the laugh she had when she looked out the window in spring and the fat squirrels were clinging to the chickadee feeder, rocking it around, shaking seeds to the ground to fatten themselves up even more. She’d laugh and say “Poor chickadees,” but what could be done? And it was kind of like the laugh she had the time she was knitting a cardigan for an older lady in her church group who’d fallen ill and she got through nearly the whole sweater and realized she had somehow counted ten more stitches per row into the left sleeve than the right sleeve, and Charles assured her you couldn’t tell—you really couldn’t tell—but Maggie kept imagining that poor old woman tugging and picking at the smaller sleeve wondering why she felt so lopsided, and on top of being sick? Maggie had no choice but to laugh as stitch by stitch and row by row she undid the entire sleeve, winding the yarn back into a ball as she tugged her work loose. It was almost like those laughs.
But it wasn’t. It wasn’t those laughs, and the difference iced Charles’s blood even with his hands plunged into the fire. Naked, legs dripping, the soap crusting on her breasts in white scabs, Maggie laughed and laughed as she returned to the bedroom, pills rattling in her hand.
On New Year’s Eve, one by one, the puppies opened their eyes.
The dappled gray girl with the white feet was first. “Well look at you,” Charles whispered. He was sitting in a rocker beside the bassinet with a bowl of stew in his lap, chewing hunks of beef and cabbage. He rubbed her ears with his thumb as she looked around with quiet cries. “A lot to see. Those are your brothers and sisters.” Charles held up a spoonful of stew. “This is cow. It’s good, but you can’t have cow just yet. You’ll like cow. And who are you?”
Charles knew Maggie had to have left the bedroom during the past week, but he never saw her. She had to be sneaking out when he was asleep on the couch. There would be a pitcher of water missing from the kitchen, or a box of crackers. Sometimes he heard laughter, but not often. He was grateful for that. Other times, if he pressed his ear to the door, he heard her voice, low and rapid, but he couldn’t make out her words. The relentless rhythm could be prayer, it could be nonsense, or madness: he didn’t know. As the days passed he grew thirsty for contact in the buried cabin, and he hadn’t named the puppies he was mothering through the hours. He tried to think of them in abstract terms but that wasn’t working in the slightest as he cradled them and mixed formula and revolved about them in his isolation, so when that dappled puppy finally opened her eyes and blinked as Charles licked his stew spoon, a deep piece of his gut seemed to snap, and he was able to say, “You’re Addison.”
A few minutes later, one of the boy’s eyes peeled open. “Welcome to the party, bud.” His pewter fur gave way to a creamy face and belly. “Lot quieter than Addie. Sister’s got a lot to say. What about you?” Charles set his bowl on the floor and put the puppy in his lap. “Little guy, you seem like a Fred. Wanna be Fred? Yeah, you’ll be Fred.” Charles picked up the boy with the steel-colored tail and head. “You’re Raoul. Raoul? What kinda name is that?” Charles laughed. “You’ll grow into it. And you,” he said, wiggling the paw of the girl with muted gray and brown stripes across her back, “you are Lindsey. Lindsey’s a pretty name. Pretty name for a pretty girl.”
That left only the black runt to name. Charles grimaced to think of her as the runt, but she was: so weak compared to her brothers and sisters. Charles ached watching her shiver when she accidentally rolled away from the others. She worried him. He nursed the puppies on the rug—Raoul opened his eyes. A couple of hours later, Lindsey followed suit.
Fresh logs crackling in the hearth, Charles checked the grandfather clock: ten ‘til twelve. He couldn’t be certain, hidden from the sun, locked in the lantern-light, but he thought it was about to become a new year. He waited five more minutes and knocked on the bedroom door.
“Maggie? I might’ve lost track, but,” Charles swiped at a tear rolling down his cheek, “but, it’s New Year’s, I think.”
He closed his eyes and flattened a palm against the door. Four years ago on this night Charles and Maggie had plans to go to a New Year’s “black tie” gala in the village, but the truck’s engine wouldn’t turn. Charles had known how silly the event was going to be—the same handful of folks from church who always put on potlucks and bingos, most likely wearing the same dresses and jackets they put on for services each Sunday and just calling it “black tie.” Maybe some streamers and punch. But Charles fidgeted and fussed with the truck engine for twenty full minutes in the freezing wind, willing it to kick over, because Maggie was inside and she’d had her hair in rollers the whole day so it would lay in soft, dark curls around the shoulders of the dress she’d bought just for New Year’s. It was deep emerald, a velvety material that showed her curves. Charles thought she looked so sophisticated. The one thing he’d always thanked God for was giving him such a wonderful wife, and her beauty that night made him realize the whole Bible’s worth of praises couldn’t capture how lucky he was.
He gave up on the truck when he looked down and saw a gash on his finger, bleeding heartily; his hands had grown so numb that he hadn’t realized he’d sliced himself against part of the engine, likely against the exhaust manifold bolts, long rusted.
“I tried, baby. Truck’s not going anywhere tonight.”
Maggie had shut the door behind him and said, “I figured as much. Good thing we got a bottle of wine and some records right here, huh?” She handed him a glass and said, “Let’s dance.”
And they danced. They rarely drank: a glass of wine on Thanksgiving, a drink at New Year’s, so as the bottle emptied their desires grew warmer until they stripped off the fancy clothes and touched and licked and caressed one another on the rug by the fire like a couple married for six hours as opposed to six years. They had stumbled to bed naked and talked and giggled for an hour until they fell asleep, well before midnight.
Charles rubbed his palm against the door. One of the puppies whimpered. He thought it was Raoul.
“Did you hear me? It’s New Year’s. We got about three minutes to midnight.” Charles wanted to sob. He wanted to scream. But he spoke quietly, evenly. “Maggie, you have to talk to me. You’ve gotta come out. Come on out, now, and have New Year’s with me.”
It was muffled, but she responded.
“Wh—Mags, what was that? What’d you say?”
“When he brings darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl.”
“Maggie?” Charles pounded on the door. “Open this. Right now!”
“Test the spirits.”
“Right now, Maggie!”
The door opened. She had properly cleaned herself: Charles knew because she stood completely nude before him. She grinned. “Many false prophets have gone out into the world, Charles.”
Trembling, Charles picked up Maggie’s bathrobe and draped it over her shoulders, trying to tuck her arms into the sleeves. “It’s freezing in here.”
Maggie struggled out of his arms and closed her eyes. “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.”
“When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.”
Maggie fell back on the bed and grabbed one of her breasts, slowly running a finger between her legs. “She said to herself, ‘I am the one! And there is none besides me!’” The grandfather clock chimed midnight and Maggie moaned, then laughed. “What a ruin she has become, a lair for wild beasts!”
Charles yanked her hand from between her legs and pressed the bathrobe over her body.
She lashed at his face and screamed, “All who pass by her scoff and shake their fists!”
His lungs froze and he slapped her. He slapped her right across the face, and when the madness didn’t leave her eyes, he slapped her harder.
Maggie looked up at Charles, crouched atop her, and whispered, “It’s cold, Charles. It’s really cold.”
“Come on under the blankets.” He pushed a bag of oyster crackers off the comforter, and, with a moment’s hesitation, shoved Maggie’s Bible to the floor as well. “There you go, snuggle in. Warmer?”
Maggie nodded, clutching at her shoulders with trembling hands. “Did you make a resolution?”
Charles shook his head. His blood was exhaustion. His skin was exhaustion. There were no words. When Maggie pulled back the corner of the blanket and patted the mattress, her eyes were wet and scared and something closer to normal. He pulled off his jeans and sweater and climbed in beside her. His eyelids felt magnetically compelled to close; he knew he’d have to be up in a few hours to check on the puppies, but the fire was strong, and he was so tired. His wife was warm, and close, and he was so tired.
Maggie kissed his cheek, murmured “Happy new year,” and Charles was gone.
It was dark when Charles opened his eyes. That didn’t tell him anything. It was always dark. For weeks the world had been shadow and fire and lantern-light. Maggie wasn’t in bed. He kicked off the blankets and felt his skin tighten in the frosted air, pulled on his clothes and crept to the door.
The fire was almost dead, just glowing coals across the den. Charles heard scraping in the kitchen and turned the corner to find Maggie furiously working at the wall of snow blocking the back exit. She wore a puffy coat over an old pair of overalls and scraped and pawed at the snow as high as she could reach, madly diving into it with her mittened hands, pulling chunks to the floor where a puddle was spreading around her feet.
“You’re gonna ruin the floor,” Charles said. Maggie didn’t stop to acknowledge him. Charles returned to the den to rebuild the fire and tend to the puppies, who were loud with hunger. He strapped on the nursing vest and plopped the puppies on the rug, taking care to ensure the runt got her fill, as always. Cradling the little black puppy, Charles decided to name her Dora. It was the name Maggie planned to give their first daughter, after her great-aunt Dorothy, who meant a great deal to her, but also because the name meant “gift.” He heard Maggie grunt as she fought against the snow. Dora hadn’t opened her eyes yet.
Charles took off the vest and left the puppies on the rug. He stood behind Maggie in the kitchen. “What are you trying to do?”
Maggie pawed out a few more handfuls of snow before laughing and saying, “To do? What’s it look like I’m trying to do, Charles?” He could see her wrists between the coat and mittens each time she reached up; the skin was red and raw.
“It looks like you’re trying to escape.”
“That’s a good word for it.”
“Suicide’s a good word, too. That’s all it is. You get out there, how you planning to get anywhere? You think someone’s waiting for you up there? Think you’re a rabbit, just gonna hop across the snow and up to town? You’re just making it damp and awful for us in here, can’t you hear them crying? They were starving. Didn’t you hear them?”
Maggie panted, “I heard them,” and kicked the snow. She sank into the icy puddle at her feet. “Hear them all the time. I feel them.”
Charles crouched. “It’s two boys, and three girls.” He paused to gauge Maggie’s reaction, but her face was blank. “There’s Addie. Fred. There’s, she’s beautiful, with these stripes…she’s Lindsey. Will you please come meet them? Please?”
“I always said, I always thought, that no bad could come our way ‘cause you’d beat it off with a shovel or run it over with a tractor or something.” Maggie smiled. “I believed it, I really did, that Beelzebub himself could come knocking and you, your goodness, would make it so he couldn’t step in the door.” Maggie pulled off her mittens. “But, it’s been told, we can’t give the devil a foothold. We can’t give him that.”
Charles had trouble speaking. “I don’t understand.”
Maggie looked him in the eye. “He warned Jerusalem. Did we miss it? Did He warn us?”
Charles pulled Maggie out of the doorway and latched the exit. “You need to get by the fire.” He nodded at her overalls. “You’ll catch a cold in those.”
Maggie stayed crumpled on the ground. She said, “He shoots with deadly and destructive arrows of famine. He shoots to destroy.” She stretched out, extending her arms, pointing her feet. “Dogs surround me. A pack of villains encircles me. They pierce my hands and my feet.”
She pulled in her legs, clutching them to her chest. As Charles dragged Maggie to the bedroom to strip her, drug her, and put her to bed, she began to cry. Her words were too soft to hear, but Charles caught enough to know the verse plaguing her mind.
I will send famine and wild beasts against you, and they will leave you childless.
The grandfather clock had chimed three more days when Dora finally opened her eyes. It had chimed perhaps twelve more days, or twenty, when the puppies began to walk. They’d doubled in size, and their ears were open. The muscles grew in their legs, and in their throats: they learned to love the sounds of their voices barking in high pitches. Charles set up the playpen to give them room to romp. A detachable bracket suspended a mobile of colorful smiley faces above the playpen. Charles would wind up the mobile, and as the red and blue and yellow faces began to circle in time to the tinkling music, Raoul, Addie, Lindsey and Fred darted about, yapping at the faces and clawing at the sides of the pen. Dora stood in the middle, teetering uncertainly on her tiny legs before plopping down time and again. Again, and again, Charles wound the mobile, delighted as the puppies ran and ran and ran in dizzy puppy circles before falling into woozy naps. Smiley faces. Smiley puppies. Smiley Charles.
Charles started soaking kibbles of hard cat food in saucers of formula to transition the puppies into eating solids. He apologized each time he fed them, feeling like a failure because cat food was the best he could do.
Maggie always had a soft spot for the strays that hung out by the shed, so they’d kept a bucket of cat kibble in the house for years. He’d never cared for the cats. Mangy, whining, flea-bitten things, not that it was their fault.
But he was so proud of his puppies: only one month old, and already walking!
When the puppies tired themselves out, Charles often took the opportunity to nap. Other times, though, he lit a cigar and sat down to read about parenting. Unlike Maggie’s friends, who passed along the onesies and bottles and books when they started trying for a baby, his friends had passed along a box of cigars and some old Playboy magazines, assuring him that once the children arrived, his wife would never put out again. Charles and Maggie had a good laugh over those skin mags; Maggie was beet red when he first showed her, but it only took some kissing and compliments to convince her to strike a few poses for him to enjoy. She didn’t let him take pictures, of course, but he cherished the memory.
Now he sat reading about the unique challenges of raising multiples: feeding regimens, sleeping schedules, travel safety. Charles glanced at the plates of soggy kibble littering the floor, and the puppies drowsing in a comatose lump in the playpen. He tried to picture the world above the snow: was a smoke-belching hole, where the chimney poked through, the only indication that he existed? That they were all alive? He turned back to the book. The individualized attention bit concerned him. All of the experts recommended finding ways to spend one-on-one time with each multiple in order to develop their unique personalities, and to form a stronger parental bond. Charles had been homogenous in his fathering thus far, but he could work on that. Maybe walk Fred while the others ate, or read to Addie while her siblings napped. He would figure it out.
Cigar perched between his lips, Charles took the book into the bathroom to do his business. The plumbing had been frozen since the blizzard hit, so Charles had worked the bathroom window open, scooped out some snow, and poured hot water down the side of the cabin to melt a chute where he could dump the contents of the chamber pot, which wasn’t a chamber pot at all but a regular cooking pot that he relished the thought of someday destroying. Charles squatted and read a “Helpful Hint” enclosed in a little box: “Don’t be ashamed if you can’t tell your multiples apart at first—this is normal! Put a small dab of nail polish on each baby’s toe and create a color key so you know who’s ‘Aqua Blue’ and who’s ‘Sassy Silver’!”
Charles ashed his cigar in the sink with a self-satisfied flourish; he knew how to tell all five of his apart from day one. He never had to paint them. Who paints their kids? He took his time finishing the cigar and flipping through chapters, making a mental note to revisit the selections on teething and circumcision. As Charles jimmied the window open, he heard a squeaky yip: Lindsey. A throatier bark followed: that had to be Raoul. And then nervous whining, frantic yelps, and Charles forgot about the chamber pot and raced out of the bathroom, nearly stumbling over Addie in the hallway. He quickly snatched her up and hugged her, put a finger to his lips and shut her in the laundry room. From the hallway, he saw Lindsey cowering in the kitchen, a shivering ball of soft stripes with big brown eyes, and then he was in the den.
Maggie rocked on her knees before the fire, naked, her arms submerged to the elbows in the cat kibble bucket; the kibble was strewn all about the room, lodged in the floorboards, dotting the rug. Maggie’s hair ran in long, black waves down her back. Her face was pale, and her blank eyes fixed to the bottom of the bucket, to the bottom of the water lapping her forearms, lapping as she rocked and whispered frantically.
“Even from birth the wicked go astray, even from the womb they are wayward and speak lies, and women will be saved through childbearing, if we do not give the devil a foothold, if we watch for those evildoers and mutilators of the flesh—”
Charles leapt on Maggie, slamming her head into the brick hearth. The bucket toppled, and the water washed across the floor. Charles gently turned the bucket and reached in. The body was sodden and dense, and her legs dangled inert, paws limp. Her little square head lolled as he laid her near the flames. He rubbed her side with two fingers, and water trickled from her lips. The tiny black chest didn’t rise. She was soaking, freezing, dead.
Charles looked away from Dora’s drowned body to the playpen. The netting. The other puppies had been able to climb the playpen’s netted sides and jump out when Maggie reached in to grab one of them, but Dora wasn’t strong enough to run yet. She hadn’t learned to walk.
And she hadn’t known to close her eyes.
Maggie didn’t scream when she woke up tied to the rocking chair, her wrists and ankles bound to the armrests and glider posts, duct tape wound thick across her stomach. Charles had expected her to scream. He’d wanted her to scream.
For the next week he let the puppies run amok. Raoul tore the heads from pastel stuffed animals. Addie loved rattles. She’d toss them in the air and whip them back and forth, shake shake shake, until she was too tired to move, and then she’d wake up and shake shake shake some more. Lindsey and Fred were wrestlers, intent to gnaw each other’s napes and growl and pounce all throughout the blended days and nights. Charles lounged on the couch reading fairy tales aloud, or he sprawled on the floor and let the puppies dance across his chest and face.
He gave Maggie water and fed her potatoes. She started whimpering on the second day, when she couldn’t hold her waste in anymore. Charles didn’t untie her. Maggie soaked in her mess, and Charles lit more cigars to amend the den’s thick odor.
On the third day, Charles pressed the puppies’ paws in finger paint from Maggie’s craft box and guided them across sheets of paper. He pasted the sheets into the baby memory book he found on the “MOMMY’S CORNER” shelf, and held the book close to Maggie’s face so she could see each of their little paw prints.
On the fourth day, Maggie begged for the Lord to intervene. Charles duct-taped her mouth.
On the fifth day, Charles boiled gallons of water and took a long, luxurious bath.
On the sixth day, Charles removed the tape from Maggie’s mouth and let her have a sip of water. He replaced the tape.
On the seventh day, he moved the puppies to the bedroom, and when the grandfather clock struck twelve, Charles cut Maggie free. He wielded the butcher knife with a light, loose touch.
He pressed the broad side of the blade to Maggie’s lips and shook his head.
Charles stepped into the bedroom and latched the door. He doused the lantern, and in the darkness, he tried to remember his wife in an apron scrambling eggs, knitting scarves in the passenger seat of the truck, meticulously sorting coupons from the Sunday circular, but he couldn’t overcome that vision of a ghoulish woman sticky with the residues of tape and vacated bowels, her hair a den of greasy black snakes shielding a face that Charles no longer recognized.
The government didn’t finalize the death count until early summer. All told, they said, the blizzard claimed eleven thousand lives. The elderly and the poor crowded in the unheated apartments of the tri-state’s big cities made up a small slice. Carbon monoxide poisoning peacefully swept away some suburban families as they slept. Would-be heroes died in attempts to rescue stranded motorists. But the bulk of the corpses came from deep in the Kentucky hills, from the forgotten Appalachian villages, the inaccessible hollers. It was a winter catastrophe the likes of which the States had never seen. The cities were chaos; resources couldn’t be wasted on the scattered, hidden populations of the hills.
Charles found Maggie’s body in mid-March, frozen and partially submerged in the last two feet of snow. She’d made it a quarter mile from the cabin. The tunnel she dug had collapsed before Charles awoke on the day of her escape, and he had closed the back door against the crumbling white chunks and latched the deadbolt. He reported her passing as a stir-crazy accidental suicide, and the sheriff nodded, and the coroner jotted “hypothermia” on yet another death certificate before signing off to have Maggie dumped in an icy plot beside the hundreds of other corpses pouring in from the surrounding hills.
Charles felt the years, their definition and passing, evolve with the breadth of his family’s sorrows and joys—the outrage when Addie became pregnant just past her second birthday, and the complete dissipation of that anger when Charles greeted his dappled grandpuppies; the unrelenting heartache of losing Raoul before he turned ten, but the wonder of watching Raoul’s own grandpuppies flourish, then his great-grandpuppies, darting about the yard with drool flying from their tiny, smushed faces.
It wasn’t a bad life. If he couldn’t speak of it, couldn’t rationalize it, then that only proved the folly of words, he reasoned.
When Charles turned ninety and the succession of years began to erode his mind’s inhibitions, he told the nurses in the home about the winter the snow fell so thick that it erased the cabins in the valleys, erased thegravestones and the churches. He held a dog close to his side, the dog the staff allowed him to keep as a therapy pet, stroking her jet-black ears as he silently prayed for his memories to survive, praying the love he felt and miracles he remembered wouldn’t be lost to the insurmountable whiteness just over the horizon. Charles hugged the dog, and he told the nurses of a storm so vicious that God Himself was blinded, the winter so cold that God broke the rules of His creation and sent forth His precious creatures to be born in new ways, hopeful for His children, testing the faith of the little human creatures spiraling smoke and prayers unto the heavens.
Thank you to Alice G. Otto for sharing the complete text of her story “A Test of Faith” for free on the web. The complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories. Click here to find the book on Amazon. E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.
Alice G. Otto lived in Bethel, Ohio, a small town outside Cincinnati, until graduating from high school. She is currently pursuing her M.F.A. at the University of Arkansas, where she has received the Walton Family Fellowship in Fiction and the Carolyn F. Walton Cole Fellowship in Poetry. She holds a B.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Evansville. Alice’s work has appeared in publications including Harpur Palate, RiverLit and Yalobusha Review.