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Image: Hobvias Sudoneighm, ‘Long Vermont Roads’, Flickr (CC BY-2.0, digitally altered)

The house is a winter postcard: snow on the eaves, fake candles in the windows, Alison’s mother dying in the sewing room. Alison and her children stomp down the back steps, the wind clawing at their exposed faces and worming its way up their sleeves.  The children, normally tanned, bare limbed, are swathed in borrowed winter clothes.

They make their way up the little hill at the edge of the property, passing the iced-over pond.

‘Frogs,’ her daughter Lola announces.

‘That’s where the frogs live.’ Nine-year-old Roy looks back at Alison for confirmation as he says this. It seems impossible.

When they visit in summer the children spend long afternoons hunting small slimy bodies in the water, flipping them over and tickling their pale bloated stomachs. Now, as she lights her cigarettes with clumsy gloved fingers, Alison imagines the faint pulsing heat of the frogs’ bodies nestled deep in the mud at the bottom of the pond.

She never smokes in front of her children back home – she has basically quit, just one or two a day – but here they are her co-conspirators amidst the hushed judgement of her parents’ house.

When they reach the road Alison makes the children walk single file through the muddy slush at the edge of the curb. Cars come quickly around these icy corners. She feels uneasy even when she walks alone.

They are just outside Burlington in rural Vermont. Most of the properties along the road are farms or dilapidated houses with fields, barns and rusting ride-on mowers in the yard, everything covered in thick powdery snow.

Everything is muffled, still. Two sounds: their own trudging footsteps and the thin, icy babble of the river that follows the road down to the lake.

No cars come past. Everything is muffled, still. Two sounds: their own trudging footsteps and the thin, icy babble of the river that follows the road down to the lake.



‘Where do the animals go in the winter?’

‘They go into hibernation, in their burrows. It’s like taking a really long nap.’

Roy is satisfied; he likes naps. On the plane from Sydney he slept for nearly fourteen hours while Lola fidgeted tearily and Alison drank four glasses of red wine in anticipation of the long sober weeks ahead, winding up with a headache and an embarrassing collection of complementary nuts.

The walk to the lake takes Alison twenty minutes alone and over half an hour with her children in tow. Lola ploughs ahead, her reckless child, slushing through puddles and knocking snow off low-hanging branches along the side of the road. Roy is distracted by potholes and deer droppings.

Alison is glad to get Lola out of the house. Lola is six; brave, silly and sometimes crass. Alison loves these things about her daughter, but here it’s too much. Already she has broken a vase and two Christmas ornaments. The Christmas tree has not been packed away. Thin and tremulous, it shakes violently as Lola thunders through the house.

Alison has noticed the thin line of her father’s mouth, his white knuckles as he reads the paper. Of course he loves Lola, loves being a grandfather. But it was Alison’s mother who always adored Lola, laughed uproariously at Lola’s jokes, took the grimy toddler’s fist in her hand and played sing-song Southern nursery games with the chubby fingers. Once she looked at her granddaughter proudly and said, ‘This one is going to be trouble.’

Now Lola is afraid of her grandmother. The sewing room smells like death, like hospitals and air freshener and a faint, sour human odour. There is the sound of rattled breathing, a constant stream of kind, tired nurses who smile matter-of-factly as they wipe spit from Alison’s mother’s mouth and adjust the quilt around her bony frame.

They pass a golden retriever chained to a front porch. The dog barks and strains at its metal chain, face contorted, teeth bared. Lola grips her mother’s sleeve and both children stick close to her until they can no longer hear the dog behind them. Then, rounding a corner, they arrive at the lake.

It’s frozen over, with ice fishermen and their jeep parked far out on the surface. In summers past the children swam here fearlessly, knowing the brown water concealed neither sharks nor crocodiles.

Now Lola is afraid of her grandmother. The sewing room smells like death, like hospitals and air freshener and a faint, sour human odour.

Next to the lake is the general store, the playground and an empty carpark. Lola and Roy make for the icy playground and Alison enters the store.

It’s warm inside, and Alison’s eyes have to adjust to the dim light. She needs milk, cigarettes, wholemeal bread. She misses the variety in Melbourne supermarkets, the indulgence of choosing between five ancient grains. The store is small and she’s soon at the check-out, wishing she didn’t know Sandra, the woman behind the counter.

She fields the usual questions, armed with sad little truisms, head-tilts and shrugs. And how is your mother doing? And your husband, was it Geoff? Oh, I’m sorry. And your father, how’s he holding up? Anyway, how’s this for snow, huh? Don’t get winters like this back in – is it Sydney? Oh, that’s right.

As they speak Alison notices Sandra’s thinning hair, pale tired face. She doesn’t ask Sandra any questions, wanting to pay for her groceries and leave. Sandra asks if she’s heard about the girl who drowned in the river last week, just seven years old, trapped under the ice – they have to wait for the summer thaw to retrieve her body. Terrible, just terrible – may the Lord bless her soul.

Instinctively, Alison glances out the window at the playground. She can’t see her children.

Before she can drop her groceries and sprint to the lake she hears the tinkle of the door and Lola and Roy enter the shop, red-cheeked, frost in their hair, petulant and alive.  Alison’s chest is tight with relief.

‘We got bored,’ says Roy. Lola wants an ice-cream.

Alison buys chocolate instead, and lets them drink milk from the carton as they start walking back up the road. Lola and Roy are tired. They dawdle, stop to tie their shoes, adjust the velcro on their gloves. Alison’s elation at their being alive wanes. Impatient, she walks on ahead.

Then, rounding a corner, a dark red stain on the icy road. Alison freezes, grabs her children by their puffy jackets to prevent them from going closer. Slowly she approaches the small, bloody mound of fur by the curb. A squirrel, barely alive, its heart beating visibly in its open chest.

A flash of hot fear – has the dog broken free of its chain?

But no, there is a bloody tyre mark, the squirrel thrown to the curb by the impact. The blood steams faintly, warm on the icy surface of the road.

‘What happened? What is it?’ Lola and Roy hang back, uncertain.

‘It’s just a squirrel.’ Alison’s voice is loud, harsh with unintended bravado. ‘We should get it off the road’.

Move it to a bush? The neighbour’s lawn? No. She needs to do more than that.

‘What we have to do,’ she tells her children, ‘is give this squirrel a proper burial.’

They like this; Lola brightens.

‘A funeral?’ Roy comes closer, peers down at the squirrel. ‘But Mum, it’s still alive.’

It’s true. Entrails in none of the right places, but still alive.

Gingerly, Alison takes off her jacket and picks up the limp body, cradles it against her chest. They continue walking, Roy carrying the milk and bread.

Lola skips alongside her mother, crows gleefully. ‘It’s a baby, it’s a ba-a-aby!’

It almost feels like a baby, too; small and fragile against Alison’s chest. She tries not to squeeze it, although her body is tense with cold.

She notices blood pooling in the fleecy folds of the jacket. A familiar sense of helplessness stretches tight in Alison’s chest, crowds the cold air out of her lungs.

A car passes. They all flinch.

She notices blood pooling in the fleecy folds of the jacket. A familiar sense of helplessness stretches tight in Alison’s chest, crowds the cold air out of her lungs.

Ten, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes pass before Alison sees the false orange glow of the candles in the windows of her parents’ house. Opening the folds of her jacket she confirms what she already knows. The squirrel is dead.

Together they choose a spot on the hill by the pond and start digging through the powdery snow, finally hitting hard icy soil. Even with a shovel, Alison can’t make more than a few centimetres of a dent in the dirt, but she decides that it’s enough. The squirrel will be exposed when the snow melts in the spring, will become food for foxes or even bears.

Packing the snow tightly, they cover the small body and build a commemorative mound, a misshapen gravestone with a pine branch stuck in the top. ‘A cross,’ says Roy, but it’s just a stick.

‘Amen,’ says Lola. Where are they getting this stuff? Alison isn’t religious, they can’t have picked it up at home.

They stand there for a little while. Behind them, the house bears silent witness to the proceedings. Lola sings a song that she learned at school.

It starts to snow, just lightly at first, but becoming heavier. Bored, Lola and Roy race back to the house.

Alison follows at a distance, milk and bread and stained jacket in her arms. She shivers, the cold deep in her bones, and watches her children run through the fresh-fallen snow. Inside there will be hot chocolate, dry socks, and strained, rattling breaths in the sewing room.