The Snow Fortby Mary Ann McGuigan
From the window of her study, Moira watched the small gray cat exploring the tunnels pounded into Sean’s snow fort. Its steps were hesitant, as if testing the whiteness to be sure it wouldn’t be swallowed up. What would the boys make of tracks in their domain? It wouldn’t surprise her if they resented this trespass. Her sons had become fiercely territorial. Comings and goings—no matter how routine—made them suspicious. Moira had let the pizza delivery boy come in out of the cold while she fetched her wallet and they got upset about it. When she was late getting back from the supermarket, Michael was close to tears.
She shouldn’t have been cat-watching. Her rightful post on the rare days when she could work at home was at the front window, watching for Sean and Michael’s return from school. Glancing at the clock, she scolded herself for losing track of time and hurried into the living room to wait.
She heard them before they were in sight, Sean calling Michael’s name as if it were a slur. Their animosity was indefatigable. Neither could find anything worthy in the other. She used to wonder whether the boys would have gotten along better had she and Ken waited another year to have Michael, or perhaps had him a little sooner. But they’d gone by the books—as many as they could find—the majority of which suggested three years’ difference was ideal.
The parenting how-to’s served them even now. She and Ken had agreed the boys would live with Moira. Minimize change, the experts instructed, minimize. That was key. And tell them together. So they did, right there in the living room. Moira in the rocker, Ken on the piano stool with Michael, and Sean on the carpet, as if their father were about to read them all a favorite passage from Huckleberry Finn. Civilized. Almost cozy. An all-for-one-and-one-for-all approach to the business of destroying lives. Except that Michael received the tidy news looking as if his parents had just removed his insides and Sean hadn’t looked at either of them since.
As the boys came into view, Moira saw that Michael was not wearing his woolen hat. He had lately adopted his older brother’s defense against the cold: Act tough and you won’t feel it. She opened the door for them, vowing to say nothing about hats. Sean got free of his backpack and into his room before she could make contact. Michael sat on the stairs and presented his foot for her to remove his boot. Please and thank you had no part in this ritual. He was the son of a long line of Irish mothers and he knew his rights.
“How was school?” she asked, but once free of his boots he slid across the hardwood floor in his socks, dug a game out of his toy closet, and brought it to her to play with him. He did this now whenever she worked at home, ever since he learned that his parents were going to separate. No more heading straight for the video games; he wanted contact, closeness, as if he sensed that such intimacies were finite and theirs might be all but used up. At bedtime he asked for songs again, the ones she sang to them when they were small, the ones her mother had sung to her. Moira couldn’t remember stopping the songs; they just dropped out of the ritual after a time. Now she had to sing them in a whisper to keep her voice from cracking. They were sad songs from County Clare, from Kilrush, meant to be sung by women who didn’t break easily, like her mother, a rock-solid, no-nonsense doer of whatever had to be done. Moira, very much her mother’s child, rarely failed to do what was required or hesitated to say what had to be said. Ken told her there were times when hesitation might be a virtue, but she could never sense them.
The game was Parcheesi that day, and they set it up on the coffee table. Moira sat on the couch, Michael on the floor, eager and talkative. His little figures leapt over hers in a jerky, painstaking effort to reach home, thwarted repeatedly by the unfriendly way the dice fell. But she moved her pawns randomly, forgetting which direction would take her home, trying to catch snippets of the news on the radio amid Michael’s constant chatter. Finally, when she drifted too far, he took her chin in his hand and turned her face toward his. “I’m green. You’re blue,” he said. “You’re moving my greens.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, returning a piece to its rightful spot, hoping to undo the damage. They resumed the game, but she remained distracted.
“You don’t want to play.”
“Of course, I do. Let’s start over.”
She rearranged the pieces as he sank onto his bottom and rested his head on his arm stretched across the game board. Listless, he began to flick the pawns away like little marbles. She placed her hand on his to keep him still, saw that he was close to tears. How complicated it was to love a child, how scary. Even when the boys were infants, she feared she wasn’t doing it right. Their tears and sadness were mysteries to her, haunting tests. She would pick them up, soothe them, change them, rock them, put them to her breast, never sure of what might work. And when something did, the serenity seemed like a deception, a stubborn riddle that would never remain solved.
Moira held her arms out, and he rushed to her as if she’d been gone for days. She relied on him to know what he needed. Her embrace comforted him, but she had to fight off the bizarre urge to tell him she was not the answer, that being strong was the only sure protection. His surrender pulled at her, made her wish she could trust it to work.
A car pulled into the driveway, and Michael jumped away from her. His father, his second helping, had arrived. The front door opened in a rush, the cold air sudden and thrilling. “Hey, big guy,” Ken said, and before he could put down his books, Michael attached himself, his arms fast around his father’s waist. Ken bent to hold him, and they tumbled to the floor, landing among the Micro Machines and Parcheesi pieces. Moira could barely stand to watch. Their horseplay made her uneasy. She found it inappropriate somehow, like cast members partying after a flop.
Braced on one knee, Ken leaned on the coffee table to help himself up. Ice lined the crevices of his shoes, and Moira felt the coldness as he closed the distance between them. It clung to his coat, the skin of his face. Their greetings had continued unchanged, the barest brush of cheeks, a hand on a forearm, no more than the resigned meeting of two losing teams.
She pulled away, said she wanted to check on Sean, though mostly she wanted to escape Michael’s dissecting stare, his need to uncover what had changed about his parents now that they didn’t love each other. The night they told the boys they were separating, Michael insisted that the way they were now seemed no different from before. He wanted to know what to look for, he said, when they stopped loving him too. Love isn’t just what we do, Moira consoled, it’s a feeling. You can’t see it. Then how do you know, he pleaded, how do you know for sure that someone still loves you? You can’t, she wanted to say, but of course she didn’t. She told him real love—the kind a mother and father have for their children—is forever, unchangeable. She didn’t mention that her own father let decades go by uninterrupted by a word to his children, never knowing where they were or who they had become. Or that her mother now rarely left her Brooklyn apartment, preferring the ceramic company of St. Jude and the rest of her saints to that of her children.
Upstairs Moira found Sean in his room, still wearing his Giants jacket. He lay on the bed, hands tucked behind his head, examining the ceiling like a losing quarterback imagining the way things could have gone. His music was audible, despite the headphones—Prince pounding out something about going crazy. She said his name, knowing he wouldn’t hear her, then stepped closer to the bed. His face hardened. He blamed her. The problem was a simple one, as he saw it, with a simple solution: Leave things the way they are.
But they were past that point. Ken had found an apartment. He’d even slept there once or twice, and he was moving out in less than a month. The idea of separating, once spoken, had taken on a relentless momentum, like a force long suppressed. Yet she found herself thinking of how she’d miss his sweaters, the wonderful length and looseness of them. His absence was something she couldn’t grasp yet. She couldn’t see what ordinary days would be like without him: waking without the smell of his early morning coffee; no searching for his keys at night so he’d get out on time the next day. She feared instead that there would be no more ordinary days, only mornings spent wondering what went wrong and nights that made the beams creak louder.
Sean didn’t ask what went wrong. The night his parents told him they couldn’t live together anymore, he rolled his eyes in contempt, as if their decision were a moment of crankiness, some phase that would pass if they didn’t insist on making so much of it.
Moira sat down on his bed and he shifted his weight just enough to avoid contact. “How was school?” He pulled one headphone away from his ear and she asked again.
“Okay.” He shrugged, let the headphone snap back into place. He was good at finding ways to make it clear that talking to his mother had become a dreary routine for him, like brushing teeth, one he had to repeat and repeat so as not to break the rules.
Ordinarily, Moira would have insisted he remove his headphones, but today she had no stomach for the struggle. She crossed to the window, left him to himself. The snowdrifts cast deepening shadows in the yard, morphing into what appeared for the moment like a great expanse of impassable wilderness. Something in the fort caught her eye, the gently gyrating tip of a tail surfacing above the edge of a rampart. “Look,” Moira told Sean. “It’s that cat.” He lifted a headphone. “It’s a cat. There’s a cat in your fort.”
He got off the bed, stood beside her at the window to see for himself. The cat settled into the place it had found for itself on Michael’s woolen Giants cap. It was small, hardly more than a kitten. “Can I keep her?” Sean said.
“Keep her? You mean in the house?”
“Yeah. Can I keep her?” he said, as if she were purposely misunderstanding him.
“She’s a street cat. You’ll never be able to catch her.”
“If I catch her, can I keep her?” Sean’s voice was flat, no trace of childlike excitement, just an arbitrator, negotiating terms.
“We’ll see what your father says,” she told him, realizing at once how ridiculous that sounded now that Ken was leaving.
Sean made a noise, like a laugh but not a laugh, and turned away. In a heartbeat, he was pounding down the stairs and along the hall to the sliding glass door. She heard the strained creak as it slid along the track. From his window, she watched him stalk across the deck and down the steps in a slow-motion trek toward the curled-up cat. Moira wanted to call to Michael, so he could watch his brother, but she found herself paralyzed by the suspense of it, the slow, steady progress of her son’s determination. At last, at the fort, he stopped. And just when she was sure he’d make a grab for the animal, he did nothing. The cat raised its head, eyes locked on its pursuer. Moira couldn’t see Sean’s face, couldn’t tell whether he was talking to it. She waited, eager as a kid for him to keep the cat from getting away. Finally he reached out to touch it, and she watched him with the same powerlessness and hope she felt when he was on the mound, when there was a full count and the next pitch had to be right. The cat lay still, let Sean stroke the top of its head, and the breath Moira had been holding came out in a childish laugh.
She rushed downstairs. At the closet by the back door, she stopped and grabbed her coat. “Michael,” she called. “Come with me. Come out back.”
A delightful madness took over. She tried to help him get into his tangled coat, but he raced ahead of her out to the deck, one sleeve dangling. Ken followed close behind them. Standing at the deck’s railing, she saw Sean had the cat on his lap, stroking its back. “Can we keep it, Mom?” Michael cried.
Sean looked up at his mother, his mouth in the same sullen line he wore whenever he was expecting the worst. “The last thing I need is one more thing to take care of,” she said, which was as good as a yes to them, because Michael ran down to the snow fort, and settled down next to his brother, slipping a hand against the cat’s fur. Moira and Ken followed him down.
“If you keep him, you better have a vet check him out,” Ken said, standing beside her. His breath was visible as he spoke and there was something oddly intimate about the sight of it, something she felt she no longer had a right to see. She watched the side of his face in the afternoon sunlight, his profile flawless, perfectly lit, like the face of a model whose grace is unearned. But his expression remained as inscrutable as ever. He smiled down at the boys, remembering something maybe. She couldn’t tell. There was no joy in the smile. “I like your fort, guys,” he said.
“I made it,” said Sean, laying claim to the praise.
“Michael must have helped some,” he said, and she watched his breath escape again, dissipate into the cold. She remembered a younger, vulnerable face, a time when they were inseparable, each certain of how the other felt, brazen in the safety of it. At every chance, they’d wrap into one body, one breath.
Now it was anyone’s guess how Ken felt. In the end, when he saw she wouldn’t change her mind about separating, his protests became mechanical, a matter of form. Dressed in his winter sweat suit, the one the kids had given him for Christmas, he waited for Moira to finish as she told him again, her voice small and broken, that their marriage had died. He didn’t disagree. We should talk about this was all he said, as if they had options to explore. He left for his nightly walk, even remembered to put the trash barrel out by the curb.
Sean was talking baby talk to the kitten, making Michael laugh. He stopped when he saw his mother watching him. “We better bring her inside, see what she thinks of the house,” he told Michael, as if sensing Moira would resist their keeping it.
“Yeah,” said Michael, “let’s bring her in.”
Moira heard the need in their voices, and it scared her, the willingness to believe they could take this creature into their lives and have everything turn out all right. “No, we can’t keep it,” she insisted, her voice almost shrill. She realized how absurdly frightened she sounded, but she had to draw the line somewhere, make them understand the risks of these seemingly harmless connections, life’s little traps.
Sean looked as if she’d slapped him. “Why not? Why?”
She swallowed. “This just isn’t a good time,” she said, trying to sound more reasonable. “We can’t be taking in strays.”
Sean began to argue, but Ken cut him off. “It’s such a small thing they’re asking, Moira.” His tone was sharp, a surprising reprimand, because he rarely spoke with any feeling at all. “Can’t you . . . it’s such a small thing. I mean, it’s going to be a hard time for them.”
Ken seemed to have no trouble pleading his sons’ case, and she hated him for it because in truth he was ready to let them lose everything. “It’s a complication I don’t need right now,” she said.
“I’m not talking about what you need.” He squatted down next to the boys. “Maybe we could keep it at my place,” he said to them.
No one answered, and she wondered if Sean and Michael already knew better than to believe matters between them could be settled so easily.
Sean looked first at Moira, then at Ken. “You’re really going to do it?” he said.
“Do what?” said Ken. “I don’t understand.” But Moira did. Sean had convinced himself that it would never happen, his father would never go through with it.
“You’re gonna go live in that stupid apartment?”
Ken stood up, turned to Moira, his questions easy to read. Why didn’t we see this coming? Why wasn’t it in the books? He crossed his arms in front of him and his head dropped forward, as if observing a moment of silence. “I understand how you feel, Sean,” he said finally. She didn’t believe that.
Sean passed the cat to Michael and climbed out of the fort. He tromped through the snow toward the house, got as far as the deck, about forty feet away from them, placed both hands on the railing, and leaned into it, like a fighter struggling for a second wind. Moira looked away, certain he wouldn’t want her to see him this way. She realized what a mistake she’d made.
“He doesn’t want you to leave,” Michael said, as if it he suspected that neither of them understood that yet.
“I know, honey,” she said, leaning down to reach for him. “I know.” But he didn’t come to her, wouldn’t let go of the squirming cat. The animal was more restless with Michael, less willing to be held. “Remember we talked about this? You’ll both be with Daddy a lot,” she said, but he didn’t look at her. “And he’ll be at your games in the spring, just like he’s always been.” The words tasted sour on her tongue, like sickness.
“Moira, please. Not now.”
There was that teacherly tone of his again, that easy control that made her want to rub his face in the mess he’d made. She slipped as she got to her feet, extended her arm to steady herself. “Not now, Ken? Then when? How much time has to pass before you’re ready to tell the truth?”
“This isn’t the time for that.” He raised his hand, palm open, like a traffic cop, as if she needed instruction in the proper way to be.
“Of course not,” she whispered. “There’ll never be a time for it.”
She turned to Sean to tell him he could keep the cat, but by then the icy snow—glistening, hard, perfectly packed and rounded—had left his hand. She saw only the close of the pitch, the step forward, the hand dangling. The side of her face exploded in pain, landing her into the fort so suddenly she didn’t cry out.
Michael stood, called to his mother, losing hold of the cat. It darted away, and Moira, blinking hard, watched its effortless dash to a hiding place in the far end of the yard.
“Sean,” Ken shouted, trying to reach the boy, but his steps were clumsy and slow in the uneven drifts, and Sean evaded him easily, grabbing Michael by the arm. “Come back here!” Ken called, but Sean ignored him, running off after the cat.
Ken returned to Moira, knelt to look at her cheekbone, touched the soreness.
“Get away from me,” she told him. She pushed him, and he lost his balance, took a second to right himself.
“Moira, calm down.” He placed his hand on her knee. They were both trembling.
“You did this to him,” she said, because it was time. He needed to face it.
“You and your lies.” She sat up, leaned her weight against the sloping fort.
“Don’t,” he whispered, shifting closer to her. “Don’t do this.”
Don’t say it out loud. That’s what he meant. He touched her again, his hand on her forearm this time, and she let it stay there, wondering how long she could stand the burn. “They have a right to know why this is happening.”
“It’s happening because you want it,” he said, each syllable controlled, no trace of uncertainty. “You want a separation.”
“And you’re happy to let them think you don’t.”
“I don’t want it,” he said, removing his hand.
“You want your own terms, your own schedule. Another two or three years from now, when the time is right for you.” Something tightened in her chest, made her breath quicken. She swallowed hard, because she did not want to cry.
“Stop it, Moira.”
“Maybe Sean and Michael need to know who you really are.” She looked past him to see the boys but couldn’t find them.
Ken leaned back against the fort, close beside her. They sat together, silent in the snow, as if resting from a slope that was out of their league. “I’m not sure I know that,” he whispered.
“Spare me.” She detested his evasions. “You cheated. You didn’t want to work it through.”
“I never said that.” The line was familiar, rehearsed. And it galled her that he thought he could stay in hiding even now. “Please, let’s not do this.”
A plow at the top of the street crunched and shrieked, carving out a means of escape, and she looked up into the darkening blue sky, noticed how lovely and crisp the day had become, how otherwise perfect. She tried to be still inside, but the harpies returned in force, the relentless voices that warned her how it would feel to be without him. “So what are we supposed to do?” she said. Her stomach tightened, as if he had the answer but might refuse to tell her what it was. She put her hand to the side of her face, where the burning pain had settled in, convinced suddenly that her cheekbone must be broken, that she’d wind up grotesque, deformed.
“We can stay together. Be a family. We can do it for them.”
She made him repeat it, but she knew what he was offering. Go numb and all this would pass. She’d feel nothing. They’d be doing what they’d done before, except this time they’d both know the rules. She wanted to laugh at the honesty of it, more real than anything they’d had for a long while.
Ken touched her hand, raw now from the cold. “We can do this,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. He squeezed her palm and the warmth surprised her. She could put the ugly questions aside. Yes, she could. “I want to,” she told him, and he squeezed again, as if to cheer her on. “But I need something.” Her words were barely audible, but his mouth closed tight, as if bracing for a blow. “Tell me the truth. Tell me why.”
He took his hand away, and his body sank. She saw what she had become to him, a loss, a bad bet. And if he could take it all back—their life together, their children—she was convinced he would.
He got up, headed slowly back toward the house, shoulders slumped, the bottoms of his pant legs wet from snow. He slid the glass door aside and ducked, the way he always did, just enough to avoid the low frame, guided the door back into place just so, to keep it from catching on its track. He knew this house, knew its faults. He belonged here. She saw that.
Moira touched her cheek, the tears coming hot and urgent now, because she was relieved, grateful that there would be no answers.
She looked up at the sound of Michael calling to the cat, running zigzag to keep his indifferent little playmate from getting away again. She didn’t call to him, but she hoped he wouldn’t stay out much longer. It was getting so cold, and he had no hat, no protection. Sean was a short distance away from his brother, sitting very still under the big elm. She watched him for a time. Now and again, the wind, playing high in the snow-laden branches, loosened a thin curtain of flakes, veiling their view of each other.
* * * * *
"The Snow Fort" was published in Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts (May 1, 2018) and is included in Mary Ann McGuigan's collection of short stories, Pieces (Bottom Dog Press, 2017).
. For more about her fiction, visit www.maryannmcguigan.com.