Reclaiming Meurthe

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The noise shook the house, running from the roof to the chapped floorboards of the cabin, shaking the flame in the oil lamp in the corner.  Francois sat at the table, watching ripples spread in the milk jar in front of him, hands wringing in his lap.  Dinner sat untouched before him.  Papa sat in a small wooden chair across the room, stoking the embers in the fireplace and puffing on his pipe.  Outside, snow came down in wild errant flakes that struck the window like tiny fingers.

Francois tried to measure how much snow had accumulated since he did his chores.  When he trudged home from the schoolhouse the white powder came halfway up his shins.  Looking out the window now he figured the snow was past his waist.  That’s more than a foot in two hours.  His eyes squinted in the dimming light.  He could barely see the horse barn across the dooryard, smeared in a curtain of white.  If the weather did not slow, the he and Papa would be snowed in by morning.  Even the headmaster looked worried as he dismissed the class early.  They had been learning about how French noblemen had driven Norse mystics and barbarians from French territory in 800 AD.  According to legend the mystics made a final stand in a fort near Metz, where they fought for weeks until a blizzard swept in.  All the French had to do was block the roads and wait for them to die of starvation and exposure.  Within two weeks the Nordic invaders were dead.  Except the children.  Some of them were still alive, so they were taken into slavery.  But the barbarians were never heard from again.  The land had been reclaimed.

“Go home and tend to your cows,” the headmaster told the boys, as he stared at the blowing snow.  “You are dismissed.”  

Francois watched clouds of smoke arrow from Papa’s dense beard into the red flickering coals by his knees.  Another loud bang shook the roof, this time coming from right overhead. Papa glanced at the ceiling with eyes that sagged from a hard day at the lumberyard in Lorraine. 

“Papa,” Francois said.  “I’m scared.”

“It’s the roof shrinking from the cold,” Papa said.  “Eat your supper.”

Francois shook his head.  “But the banging is coming from different parts of the roof.”

“Different parts of the roof are shrinking.”

Francois stared at his dinner.  Venison strips and potatoes, sitting cold, almost withered on his plate.  “It sounds like footsteps.”

Papa choked with laughter and reminded the boy he was not to leave the table until his plate was clean.  He leaned back in his chair to smoke, suspenders dangling from his gray cotton pants.  He tossed another stick on the fire.

A succession of loud bursts ran down the spine of the ceiling.  THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-BANG!

Francois clapped his hands over his ears and started reciting Notre Pere under his breath.  His papa stood up and tapped the pipe on the hearth, eyes fixed on the ceiling.  He pulled his suspenders over his shirt and laced his boots.  “I have to push snow off the roof,” he said.

Francois felt his body tense up, felt his mouth wanting to protest, but what was he afraid of exactly?  Snow was a fact of life in the pastures of Meurthe, a hardship to be endured in between the harvest and the planting season.  But something was different about this storm.  It seemed purposeful, somehow. 

Papa pulled on his coat.  “I’ll be right back.” 

Francois went to the window and squinted into the blowing skirls outside.  His father moved like a man walking through quicksand.  At last he reached the barn, pried the door open, and went inside.  A minute later he came out with a long handled broom and started back for the house, struggling and against the gusts blowing in his face. 

Halfway to the house his father stopped and looked at his legs.  

Francois had just enough light to see that he was sinking into the snow.  His shins were completely gone, and the snow was swallowing his knees.

“Papa!” Francois shouted.  He ran for the door, yanked it open and met a blue gray wall of snow that came to his chest. A stinging blast of harsh snow hit him in the face.  His father’s voice came over the howling wind.  “NO!  STAY INSIDE, FRANCOIS!!”

The boy ran back to the window.  The snow was moving now, sweeping through the yard like a river.  Papa struggled to move through it, his neck and face bulging with strain.  The moving current ripped the broom from his hand and swept it to the pasture, where it sank below the surface and disappeared.

There was another great head-splitting thump from above, followed by a loud shpoof! as something huge fell off the roof and landed in the snow.  A huge mound of snow rested in the drift beside his father, then something tried to push itself free on one side.  A long branch of pure snow protruded from the mound, swinging clumsily from side to side.  Then four icy fingers and a thumb grew from the end.

Papa didn’t see it coming.  The snow had risen to his mid-chest and he was now trying to pull himself out with his arms.  He screamed as the hand closed over him and plucked him from the snow, hoisting him up.

Francois watched in numb shock as his father danced in the air, hands beating at the long fingers, but they held fast.  Papa uttered one last grunting sigh as the hand squeezed the wind from his chest.  Then a harsh, loud crunch shook the wind and his body went limp.  Blood dribbled from his beard, spattering the shifting snow as the hand dragged his body down.  In less than four seconds, the snow smoothed over and the current slithered across the field toward their neighbors’ home – the LaPettits. 

Francois backed away from the window.  His milk glass sat untouched on the table.  The fire crackled.  Papa’s pipe lay on its side on the hearth.  A pinch of sooty tobacco had spilled out.  A scream came across the field, from the LaPettit house, and the howling wind chased it across the countryside.

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