~This story previously appeared in Tusculum Review (2005)
In the sense that there was nothing before it, all writing is writing against the void. ~Mark Strand
THE seamless expanse of the white white snow had been enough to terrify him. No horse. No ice-blue shadow of hoof prints. No ephemeral outline of barn or tree etched on the horizon. No instinct of North, South, East, West.
How long had he been knocked out? Where exactly was he when he had fallen? How long ago had Mosby run off? The snow swept past him in millions of tiny fragments. He looked again for a trace of anything, but saw only white, above and below. If gravity were to fail, there would even be no telling ground from sky.
His body was stiff from the fall, but the snow had cushioned him from breaking any bones. He yelled out for Mosby again, and after the horse did not appear, he did what he often did in infrequent encounters with terror. He thought of the mundane, listing what was certain. “This is snow,” he whispered into the wind. “My feet are dry and my boots are on tight.”
He knew enough not to panic—that was all. Once a steer had fallen on him dead and crushed his leg. He had waited five hours before being discovered, and another two before they could find enough help and chains to pull the animal off him. He had learned not to panic then, though both his legs had been numb and the cold mud of September had broken his body into shivers after the first hour.
But this situation was more serious. No one knew he was out here in the blizzard. And though he could stand and walk, he didn’t know which way to turn.
Beneath this snow, he thought, is my land. He had lived and worked on this ranch for twelve years and knew well what lay beneath the surface of the ice. He thought of digging down to a patch of grass and dirt, to see if he could recognize the particular spot he was standing on. But even if he recognized it, which direction should he walk?
He had never been religious. It was dangerous to start now. Gods, from what he had noticed, were omnipotent, but also fickle. Especially gods of nature. They disliked late converts. The wind would just have to believe he had always revered it. He would have to hope, in silence, that it would offer the right direction home.
He began stepping cautiously forward, wary he could easily end up walking in circles. Was it better to run and be warmed, or be still and conserve energy? After all his years of winter, he couldn’t say for sure. He searched for a gnarled tree, that boulder near the center of the upper plain. But even if something familiar had risen out of the surface of the snow into the edge of his vision, finding the barn or the house from there still seemed unlikely. How many steps would it take before the landmark would disappear again and his direction become uncertain? Two, or maybe three.
Then it happened, the black spots. They seemed both distant and near, and he blinked his eyes to make sure he was not simply imagining them. They weren’t illusion, though; in fact, they were increasing—dark ashen flakes of snow, like static, falling from the sky and leaving patterns of black on the white ground.
He stopped thinking about direction. His mind struggled to understand what the black specks were. Perhaps a plane had exploded high above. Or a bomb—though wouldn’t he have heard it, even through the roar of the wind? And why a bomb, way out here on the plains?
He could not help but think of other disasters, of that earthquake in San Francisco fifteen years ago, of Mount Saint Helen’s, and of course, of the buildings falling in New York. And he thought of that story he had read in high school of the man building a fire in the wilderness, then realized how similar it was to the situation he was in. Had the character made it in that story? He didn’t think he had.
The black snow landed on his shoulders and shoes, like tiny fingers leaving marks that would not melt. He felt he had to escape this blackness more than the cold itself. He began to walk faster and faster, until he was running. The frozen air cut his throat and lungs, though he had wrapped his scarf twice over his mouth. But no matter how far he ran, he always found himself in an identical blinding white space, with the black specks endlessly falling around him.
When he finally ran out of breath, he slowed to a walking pace, then stopped moving altogether. What was the point of going forward when it seemed to take you nowhere?
He stood silently then and listened. The wind picked up and the black and white snow flickered endlessly past his eyes. The seamless surface of the ground seemed to him then to be like the skin of a body. He had never been with anyone before, and he wondered, as he stood in the white silence, Why not? Why had he spent his years in barns grooming horses, in pastures mending fences, in endless fields searching, such as in this night, for lost cattle—and never discovered the landscape of another person’s body? He couldn’t say for sure.
Of course, there had been Mosby, his horse, who he had known for almost ten years. His hand had memorized every muscle and bone of her body as he brushed her down each evening before feeding her. He had often pressed against her just to feel her heat enter his clothes. And he had even slept beside her a few nights after she had been attacked by a coyote and could not stand. But now even she was gone—this bothered him more than anything. He stood silent against the wind, wondering what had happened to Mosby.
Gradually, he grew tired and knelt on the ground. His mind fell into long memories of riding through tall grass fields in summer. And after some unknown amount of time, he found himself numb, crawling across the snow, with the hypo-thermal hallucination that he was about to find the edge of the storm, lift it up, and crawl safely beneath it, as though it were an enormous blanket.
The cold bright snow had agitated Mosby, who, once free from the weight of her owner, had run full force into the storm. Some instinct of direction, which had not been diminished by training, eventually led her home. After trying to wedge her way into her locked stall, she circled the barn, pressing against every door she found. Finally the tack room door, which was unlatched, swung open to the force of her head.
Inside there was light, and bales of hale, and—surprisingly—heat. A gasoline heater was left on to keep the saddle and tack supple and to keep the faucet used for filling the water buckets from freezing. Soon though, with the door half open, the room grew cold, and the thermostat re-ignited the heater with a woosh.
The sound scared Mosby, and she stomped erratically around the small room. One front hoof caught the edge of the heater and knocked it over. You can probably imagine the rest. The gasoline gurgled onto remnants of straw scattered on the floor (the shut-off valve, which had once been removed, had never been replaced). The fumes ignited and fire spread to the bales of hay stacked along the far wall. At first the quiet hush of the flames soothed Mosby. But then the flickering light frightened her and she backed away, pressing her body against the door until it shut behind her. The room grew hot, and finally the heater itself exploded in a loud flash of white.
The particles of barn, horse, and hay—now cinders and ash—floated up into the cloud-white sky. They met the cold front that had brought in the storm, and it carried them that untold distance, back to the man lost in his own white field of snow. In this way, she had returned to him.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I recall sitting down to write one day and finding myself bored with any image or idea I came up with. I decided then to write about how one writes a story, seeming from nothing. I thought of an all white environment, and came up with the cowboy in the snowstorm, akin to a writer lost in the whiteness of a black sheet of paper.
From there, it was easy to describe the setting. My first question was: how did he get there? I came up with the idea of his horse knocking him off, not knowing that the horse would become so important to the story.
At some point I realized I had formed words on the page—and so I introduced black specks into the setting, but I had no idea what they were or from where they came.
I then basically developed elements of the story I had already created: the cowboy, the farm, the horse, the snow. The story started to remind me of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” and so I alluded to that story, to just get it out in the open. That made me realize I needed something to set it in the present day, so I alluded to 9-11. I wrote on, to what seemed like the only conclusion I could come up with, that he gave up and lay down, presumably to die.
But then I was stuck. It felt too easy, too much like a vignette. And, I hadn’t really explained the black dots. I sat on the story for almost a year, I think. One day, I returned to it, deciding to take that age old advice-- “when you’re stuck, go back and look at what you have.” I started to think about the two unexamined elements—the horse and the black specks—and then the rest of the story came to me.
In an early draft, I threw in a little meta-fictional conclusion, something like “And this is how to create. From nothing. You risk everything. You let it all burn, or freeze, until it returns, transformed.” But that seemed heavy handed. Once I found the Mark Strand quote as an epigraph, I realized I could lose this weighty ending and let the metaphor about writing speak more quietly, hoping the story could now stand on its own.
ABOUT NATHAN ALLING LONG
Nathan Alling Long has stories and essays in over forty anthologies and literary journals, including Tin House, Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, The Sun, and Indiana Review. His work has appeared on NPR and has won him a Truman Capote Fellowship, a Mellon Foundation Fellowship, and a Pushcart nomination. He lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Richard Stockton College. More information can be found at http://wp.stockton.edu/longn/.