Ryan Rising lives in Kansas. His fiction is forthcoming in the African American Review.
My first love tensed in the dusk when I held her hand. I was the first boy to hold her hand and I think I must have impressed her by catching grasshoppers off the side of our old brick schoolhouse down by the creek. I wish I would have been brave enough to kiss her.
We have a coffee house now in Winfield, one I think Sami would have liked. It’s an old converted house with a porch and trees and a quiet yard covered in leaves. There’s a yellow birch tree, a fire-red maple, an orange-red maple, and two golden cottonwoods the color of winter wheat in a Kansas summer. I’ve tried not to let the noise of the nations follow me home.
This morning aged into a gray afternoon and my hot chocolate has been a blanket in the breeze – not a very determined breeze, but an easy, swirling song with snowflakes waltzing on the air. When she arrives, I hope it won’t be rude to forego the fire inside.
In all those days Sami and I played at her grandmother’s house, I never thought to ask them where their family was from. It seemed everybody I knew must have always lived in Winfield, but I’ve never forgotten those shoes Sami unwrapped for her seventh birthday. They were white and trimmed in red with red and white and green balls of fur perched in front of the ankles. I called them her elf-shoes because the toes curled back toward the ankles, but Sami told me that’s how they hooked into her skis.
“What do you think Santa will bring you?” Sami said. We were drinking hot chocolate and feeling it snow.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I still believe in him.”
“You have to believe in him. Everybody believes in him.”
“I believe in him. You believe in him – Granny believes in him.”
“You don’t think she’s just pretending?”
“Why would she?”
“I don’t know. Because she wants you to believe in him?”
“Granny’s not like that. And you remember what he said last Christmas when we went to see him.”
“Yeah, I know. But…”
“But what? Why would he ask if he could feed his reindeer our hay if he didn’t know Granny had a hay meadow?”
“You don’t think he was just guessing?”
“He wasn’t guessing. He knew we had hay and how would he know we have hay unless he was Santa?”
I’d forgotten how Sami remembered the reindeer until one day I was reading about peoples from the Arctic Circle. They herd reindeer. They wear boots with curled toes and follow reindeer herds on skis. Years ago I killed a whitetail doe I thought was a buck, but all the reindeer cows have antlers. The men who tend the cows are strong, and the ladies of those peoples have snowy blonde hair and eyes untouched by the lower world – like Sami.
The snow has moved from a slow waltz to an east coast swing, dusting over the many-colored quilt trying to cling to the yard. It’s early for snow in Kansas and it’ll melt in a day or two. Then the autumn will be wet and used like the skin of peeled fruit, instead of crisp and crackly as it should be. The afternoon though is still brisk and clean, and we’ll have the cover of the porch – but I can see the fire through the window and she’ll want to sit inside.
I know the brilliant autumn must turn to brown, but then I’ll miss those white days with Sami even more.
“Here,” Sami said. “You put it on him.”
“You should do it. It’s your hat.”
“I want you to do it.”
“Okay. There. Now he’s a snowman – a really good snowman.”
“Not yet he’s not.”
“What’re you doing?”
“Making him a good snowman.”
“You’re digging into him.”
“I’m giving him a soul.”
“But you’re – that’s an apple.”
“It’s his soul.”
“But that’s where his heart goes.”
“Where else would we put it? Now help me patch him up.”
Winfield almost always gets an Easter storm and even an April Easter will see drifts of snow. It was the day before Easter I rode my black and white Shetland through the drifts to Sami’s house. Spot was a shaggy plough who could really run through the snow and I liked to pull Sami on my sled. I rode past a train that had jumped its tracks and I told Spot we’d take Sami back to watch the work after we picked her up. Men and officers red with cold crawled over black mountains that had rolled like landslides out of their coal cars and into the snow. There were men and mounds on the other side of the crossing too, but they looked like shadows busy with bewilderment under a gray sky.
Not until the church gathered for an afternoon baptism did I learn the men had been trying to dig out Sami and her granny. We wept and prayed and celebrated the new birth as best we could.
I can see her walking now under the trees. She’s a brunette like her brother and I go to introduce myself.
“My brother says you’re the bravest man he knows.”
“Well, you look brave to me.”
She’s wearing high-heels, baked-red like a berry tart. “I thought about another hot chocolate. Maybe we could sit on the porch and watch the snow? It’s not too cold and the porch will give us some cover.”
“I need a coffee for a day like this. Something hot and strong.”
“Then how about I go and get a coffee and a hot–”
“Oh, they have a fire. Let’s take them by the fire and let the fire beat back the cold.”
“Sure. Of course.” Her high-heels click on the wooden porch. “Let’s go inside.”