"The Window" by Jennifer Snow
A brisk draft caresses your shoulder. A shiver crawls down your back. You pull the thick purple and white striped afghan to your chest, cinching it closer in a failing attempt to push aside the encroaching cold of the midwinter night. The blanket that was given to you as a holiday present a few years back has become a cherished gift laced with fond memories of that once-dear friend. The way your body heat clings to the threads helps chase away the chilled air seeping through the leaky jambs of the window near your head.
With a smile and a sigh, you mark the current page in your book and stretch out, laying back into the couch. The nights have been colder than usual, you think as you turn off the reading light and place the manuscript on the lamp-table beside you. Another cold wind penetrates the closed windows, shaking the jambs noisily. The chill is piercing, even with the thermostat set to the balmy and optimal 76 degrees you set it to hours ago.
Closing your eyes and stifling a yawn, your thoughts turn to your friend and the time she had spent hand-knitting the heat-gathering afghan. You remember the calmness of her living room as she knitted away, foot after foot of yarn, next to her fireplace. You remember watching the snow fall outside her window. “When your time comes, you will know how to follow the signs,” she had said while clicking her knitting needles together, as if to emphasize the point. She handed you the afghan and wished you happy holidays with a hug as you left her house that night. That was two years ago, and it seems so far removed now. It was the last time you spoke to her. You exhale into the chilled air of your living room and fall asleep.
You blink your eyes open and try to remember when you left your house. Your eyes are refusing to cooperate, providing you with blurry images of your surroundings that seem like you are below the surface of a lake. You feel the numbing cold of a crisp winter night, and though you are dressed for the weather, you cannot remember how you got here.
You take the gloves off your hands, gloves you do not remember ever buying, and start rubbing your eyes to clear your vision, then put your gloves back on and begin rubbing your arms in a feeble attempt to generate some warmth. Your jaw starts chattering involuntarily. Your body argues against movement. Signs that you need to get out of the cold.
Your sight now cleared enough for you to see, without feeling like you are wearing ice-block glasses, you take a moment to gather your bearings. You are in a residential side-alley between two rows of houses. Shuttered windows sit above deteriorating garbage pails lining the road. Standing at the far end of the alley is a copse of large trees, lording over terminus and blocking your way. Just behind you are more shuttered windows and trash barrels and shipping boxes. Lights for a cross-road are dimly visible in the distance, overpowered by the light coming from an unshuttered window a few steps from you.
Wishing to get out of the cold and still not recognizing your location, you start walking towards the lone home with its window glowing against the dim night. Snow is piled up neatly near the windows of each unoccupied home. Long, dagger-like icicles hang from each rooftop. As you draw nearer to the glowing window you notice that the snow padding this home is odd. It does not crawl up the wooden siding the way it does the other homes. The snow is melting in strange winding sections, making it look almost like it is a cluster of vines crawling up the side of the house. Snow and ice melt into miniature waterfalls, dripping from what few icicles still cling to the roof and windows. The droplets pass through the vines and slap the road rhythmically before collecting to form streams that flow across the well-maintained cobblestone and disappear into a sewer. The faint sounds of water falling to the bottom mix with the other noises and echo softly through the alley.
The shadow of a bird glides across the ground near the sewer grate. You look up to see a crow landing on the roof of the occupied home. The crow skitters around on the roof for a moment before cocking its head sideways at you, stilling its movement as if waiting for a response.
Rays of moonlight rise and fall across the other homes in the alley. You take a deep breath, inhaling the cold night air around you, and the aroma of burning cherry wood fills your nostrils. Like the rising sparks from a dying fire, the smell is present for but a moment before fading away, replaced by other scents–the aromas of pine or maple or oak.
Your body begins to shiver again, so you go back to rubbing the cold away from your arms in an effort to keep yourself from freezing to death. You are close enough now to the window, and it's warm light shining into the dark alley, to touch the dark-framed glass. The pane is frosted over and once again you feel like you are looking through ice-block glasses, so you remove one of your gloves and wipe a spot from one of the panes. The contact of your skin to the frozen window is like music, the rhythm of a slow dance between the cold chill of winter and the goosebumps on your arms. You wipe the spot clear with haste and put your glove back on, eager to recapture the warmth you spent clearing the window pane.
With a cleared spot on the window, you peer into the unknown world lying beyond the glass pane. You sense a fond and vague familiarity to the glow coming from the room that almost feels like home, so warm and inviting it is, so you move closer and press your nose to the glass. Questions begin to form in your mind, but you swat them aside with a note to ask the questions later. The warmly colored room beyond the window has enraptured you, caught you in its spell. You cannot help but look on.
A hearth is aglow with coals that seem to be falling asleep. The embers’ breaths come in regular pulses, each throb exhaling a wisp of smoke that rises into the chimney, drifting off into the moonlit sky as if reach for the stars. A man in a pressed suit rises from the foot of a chestnut dining table and saunters to the pile of split oak just to the side of the fireplace. He gathers up one of the logs and places it purposefully and carefully atop the glowing coals. The log hisses and spits out pieces of wood as the man lays it on the fire, fighting off the sparks of flame. The charred skeletons beneath the log persist with their eager attempts to engulf their new brother-in-death. Shadows born within the hearth quickly retreat to the corners of the room and come alive, moving in silhouetted dance to the fire’s growing choral symphony. The dying timber stops fighting, embraces the flames. The man returns to his cushioned chair by the oak dining table.
A child sits on a knitted throw-rug beneath the russet-colored table. The man begins leisurely thumbing through a newspaper, his back now facing the fireplace and an arm resting on the table. A housemaid exits through a swinging kitchen door and places fresh dishes and kitchenware for four, bows to the seated man, and turns to leave, retreating to the door through which she entered. As the maid approaches the door it opens into her, sending her flailing backward, stuttering and off-balance. Another woman exits the door carrying a china-glass bowl, clad in a heavily floured cooking apron, with her thick silvered hair tied in a loose bun. She is wearing green plaid oven gloves to protect her hands from the scalding baked meal. Steam rises from mounds of potatoes atop darkened steaks. The maid, recovering her footing, once again bows to the man, who has now picked up a newspaper, and exits. The new woman places the white dinner bowl on a heat-mat in the middle of the stained table. Removing the oven gloves, she places her right hand on the man’s left cheek and kisses him. He smiles at her then opens his mouth as if to call out to the household. The child under the table jumps up and the man’s eyes go wide with faux surprise. The child giggles and sits at the table facing the window you are watching through.
A few seconds later, a girl in a pink-hemmed blue dress and white sandal-flats bounds down a flight of stairs opposite the kitchen door. Her feet are skipping along to a tune only she seems to hear. The darkened shades in the corner, having ceased their jubilant dance, seem to be sitting at their own dinner table that is now brought to life by calm flames slowly digesting the log. The girl sits at the table with her back to the window. Her seating does not quite block your view of her sibling, the young child that she sits across from.
A light chill wind brushes against your face. It feels warmer than the bitter cold that assailed you when you first saw the window. The alley brightens quickly as the clouds above grant the moon an audience to the scene. Your body shivers as you see your reflection in the window, so you let your eyes wander until they rest on the child seated facing you, who seems to meld with your reflection in the frosted window. They look up and your eyes connect. A strange foreboding washes over you as an icicle drips itself on your hand. Your mind urges you to take a step back from the window, but the chill of the evening has returned, and your body has renewed its argument against movement. Your legs are frozen. Your feet are stuck in a snowdrift beside the window. Your body shakes ever more violently as you struggle to free yourself. In the distance, you hear a dog bark, and church bells ring out their nightly song. The crow caws and flies off. The child and your reflection smile back at you in unison. You hear a whisper caught within the musical symphony of the alley.
“When your time comes,” the voice of your dear friend says.
Your grandfather clock chimes - it is midnight, and you forget you are home for a moment. You are shivering under the afghan even though you know you set the temperature in the house to 74. The book you had put aside lies splayed open on the floor beside your couch. Your TV’s screen saver is on and displays rotating images of country cottages set aside calmly flowing rivers, while dark clouds break away slightly to allow moonlight to illuminate snow-capped mountains.
The mountains refresh the lingering images of your dream and bring you back to the room beyond the ice-frosted window with the darkened oak frame. Standing, you allow yourself a short sigh and head to the thermostat. It is set to 67, so you reset it to 76, and you pick up the book you are reading from the floor. You begin to place it back on your reading table and take a deep breath as a squall shakes the jambs again. A whisper fades in the room.
“… the signs …” it says.
“Signs indeed, dear friend,” you mumble to yourself. You allow a slight smile to accompany the warmth returning to your body as you rub the chill out of your arms. You turn off the television and head to your desk, where a letter lays open:
Thank you for your submission. We are very interested in your story, and wish to inform you that ‘The Life and Times of Angry, the Amoeba’ is exactly the kind of novel we are looking for…
“Signs indeed,” you say to the wind, half expecting a response. Your apartment is quiet. The wind has subsided. You set the book you are still carrying beside the letter on your desk, and sit down to write the first sentence in your newest story–a story about a purple and white striped afghan and the chill of a midwinter night. A story about a family on the warm side of an ice-frosted, oak-framed window. A tale about that window, the watchful eyes of a silent crow, a child, and a sign.