Joyland

Montreal |

Cold

by Arjun Basu

edited by David McGimpsey

 

The house was cold. A malevolent kind of cold. Like something haunted. The cold blew in and out of Ravi. It was like the tip of a frozen finger had reached down from the voids of space and was pushing down on him without release. This is the level of cold he felt inside his house. The cold created pressure. Like a front, as weathermen say. A constriction of things.

 

He’d chop wood during the day to keep warm and to try and build a fire big enough to heat the house. But the cold would not cease. His body absorbed it and made it its own. He’d look toward the fire and instead of feeling warmth the house laughed at him.

 

While Ravi chopped wood, Allison brewed coffee. This made her jittery - certainly too chatty for life in a country house. Ravi’s antifreeze of choice was whiskey and he found, at times, that he should not hold an axe because he was sure he was always intoxicated. But he loved how chopping wood afforded him a sense he was fighting the bitter cold. He felt manly. A lumberjack. Chopping wood as a kind of assimilation, not just with the weather but the culture. 

 

The chill of the house would vanish for a moment, and he would become mesmerized by the progression of the damage he inflicted on every tree trunk and branch. And then, finally, Allison had suggested they have sex to ward off the chill and Ravi was drunk enough to accept and they had sex, and even though they got under three duvet covers and created ample friction, and even though Ravi was worried about his whiskey intake and what kind of impression he might be making, and even though they both felt awkward and knew the other felt it too without acknowledging it, they were still cold.

 

Allison simply said: “It’s so cold.”

 

And Ravi agreed with her. “It’s colder than before,” he said.

 

And Allison shrugged and got dressed and put on an extra sweater and soon was brewing another pot of coffee.

 

Ravi cut more wood. Allison brewed more coffee. Ravi started adding whiskey to his coffee. Allison slow roasted chickens and hams and yet the house remained cold, a block of ice that wouldn’t melt, and Ravi started to think the place was cursed, that the cold was ingrained in the construction of the structure, that the wood had been put in place frozen and would remain that way, forever, a cold home where warmth could not settle. Allison said, “I bet we could build a snowman inside,”  and Ravi took that personally. Because it was his house. 

 

Ravi and Allison were once friends and colleagues and now they were more than that, but they did not speak of their attempt at warmth and it did not change the interaction between them and they continued their dance in the cold, the complaints, without again resorting to each other. At least not yet.

 

The house was on a small rise on an open field gone fallow. There were apples orchards nearby. Ravi bought it on a whim.  In the summer, the bright, white century-old house looked majestic upon that small rise, surrounded by half grown fields. From the north, the forest was creeping back to reclaim terrain lost for years to pea farmers. A stream ran from the forest toward the hill and then jogged east and rushed into a gully before entering a neighbor’s orchard.

 

The property extended into the forest for a few miles and Ravi pictured hikes and imagined the fresh air cleansing his lungs of the soot the city left inside him.  Behind the house there was a small garage that Ravi thought could eventually become a guesthouse. He would invite his friends and they would stay in one of the bedrooms or in the guest house if they needed more privacy and at nights everyone would assemble at forest’s edge, and they would light a bonfire and drink. Ravi fell in love with this vision of the place and without asking too many questions, he bought it.

 

Like Ravi, Allison is an accountant. Her desk was next to his on the twentieth floor of a 45-storey glass tower downtown. Allison, not doing anything spectacular, accepted Ravi’s invitation to his “first winter weekend” at the house. He had invited some other colleagues and one by one they accepted and then one by one they dropped out, like bowling pins struck by a ball thrown by a stupid kid.  Allison, however, was game. She liked the idea of getting away from the city, of “recharging”, as she put it, and so they went, the two of them.

 

And then it snowed. Ravi had not made arrangements for snow removal, he hadn’t even conceived of it, and the highway was impassable, and they were stuck. And after it snowed, the cold descended upon the house with a cruel and monstrous gale-like wind and the house grew colder and colder. And now the cold was coming from inside their bodies and nothing could make them warm enough.

 

 

“I’m cold and I’m going to run out of whiskey,” Ravi says, with a slightly drunken and panicked realization, and he produces a bottle of gin, one of vodka, and a cassis left over from an earlier weekend spent with his parents. His father, somehow, is a fan of cassis. To Ravi, it is the bottle of desperation, in the back of the liquor cabinet, and now he finds himself wondering what he can mix it with.

 

Allison sips her coffee and stares out the window. The long driveway to the house is under a foot of snow and beyond that, the windblown powder that creates mounds and banks and mountains of drift blots out the fields. “Can’t you call someone to shovel us out?” she asks. She turns to him, watches him study the bottles of liquor, holds her arms a bit tighter to her body. She walks to the fireplace and sits in front of it and rocks back and forth. “If I stare at the fire, I warm up,” she says.

 

“I’ve tried,” Ravi says, again, this is a conversation they’ve had, but that doesn’t mean he should give up, he realizes this, though he resents having to be reminded, and he goes down a list of numbers left by the previous owner, and as on his earlier attempts, no one picks up their phone. “I’m guessing they’re busy.”

 

“We’re going to run out of food.”

 

“We haven’t even hit the frozen stuff.”

 

“We are the frozen stuff.”

 

Ravi has always stocked the freezer. He has pizzas and a giant lasagna and more meat, bought from the butcher off the highway exit. The meat is local and organic and overpriced but he buys it in quantities because he has a house in the country and he can. He has cookies and cereal. The pantry is full. He has three cartons of milk and two of orange juice. He has lots of wood to chop. He had spent the summer clearing out deadwood and it lies between the garage and the house waiting to be chopped. They are not going to die here. But they are cold. This is an old house and it doesn’t generate heat. It can’t. And Ravi and Allison can’t stop feeling cold.

 

“I’m taking a shower,” Allison says, and though there is an imposed time limit on the shower, they still have hot water, and it is has remained the only way for them to absorb any amount of warmth.

 

He watches her leave the room and he picks up the phone and calls the office and explains the situation again, fights off the innuendo from the other end, and says he will check emails and so will Allison.

 

He takes a shortbread cookie and eats it dispassionately. Outside, the wind picks up once more and he can no longer see the end of his drive.

 

He gets dressed again, struggles into his boots, and steps outside. He leans into the wind and heads for the forest. He walks by the garage and hears the wind whistling about it, into cracks and holes, and he looks at the chipped paint on the wood and adds another task to his list of things to maybe consider doing someday. He steps carefully through the drift and into the forest and the wind dies down to a distant drone, and the silence of the place has him remembering a cathedral he’d entered in Italy, in Verona, he thinks, and how the noise of the city was muffled by the grandeur of the place. He feels that now. The grandeur of these woods, of these trees, even though this forest has yet to take back everything it once was. Where it is thin, the snow falls and drifts and dances in the wind. Ravi stays on a path, a clearing among the trees, and walks. He finds a boulder and sits on it and takes in the branches, closing in on top of him, like buttresses, and he wishes he’d brought a flask with him.

 

He hears a crack of wood and sees a rabbit, white for the season. It studies him and then it scratches its face and hops away. He hears the birdsong of the forest and figures it can’t be that cold if the birds are singing. And then the sound of the stream burbles up and Ravi follows it and soon he is upon his stream, his stream, and it is frozen except where the current is strong. There are tracks here, left by animals much larger than a rabbit, and on the other bank, he sees the fresh evidence of some large thing’s digestion at work, and he knows it’s fresh because it’s not covered by snow.

 

Through the trees, he sees blue break through the gray, and there is sunshine.

 

But then the cold is inside him again. He returns to the house and finds Allison sitting by the fire, a coffee in her hands, her wet hair resting on her wool sweater. “I kind of feel warm,” she says and she smiles. She’s almost apologetic about it.

 

He shakes the snow off his coat and takes it off and gets himself a whiskey and sits by Allison and they study the fire. He pokes at it and adds another log. “I think there’s a bear out there,” he says, realizing he’d might have seen evidence of a bear, but maybe not. What does he know?

 

Allison takes his hand. “You’re cold,” she says.

 

“I just saw the sun,” he says, surprised by the sound of it.

 

“Take a shower.”

 

He sips his whiskey and feels the warmth of her hand. “You’re warm.”

 

“I know,” she says. She laughs. “Suddenly.”

 

“Maybe I’ll take a shower.”

 

She squeezes his hand and lets go.

 

“Did you use up all the hot water?”

 

“I respected my allotted minutes.”

 

He moves closer to the fire and finishes his whiskey. “We’re such accountants,” he says. They listen to the hiss and crackle of the fire. To the incessant wind blowing by and through the house. Ravi has to admit there’s a draft inside. After this winter, he will have to consider proper insulation.

 

“One of the guys called,” she says. One of the snow removal guys. He can come tomorrow. “The roads are all cleared.”

 

Ravi takes Alison’s hand again. She pulls hers away. “Take a shower,” she says gently.  

 

He stands, slowly, and studies the ceiling. The old wood. The work that has gone into his cold house. The beams are of cedar, enormous chunks of ancient wood, holding this place up and together. Binding it. He shivers. “I’m going to take a shower,” he says, lost in a web of cold. In thoughts of frost. He walks toward the shower and leaves Allison to huddle by herself by the fire. Maybe I can find myself some warmth finally, Ravi thinks.