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A Cold Story

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Author John Smolens reads from his novel, "Cold." It's a mystery set in the Michigan's upper peninsula, in the dead of winter. The heroine of the story, Liesl Tiomenen, sees a man walking through her yard. Given her proximity to the local prison she knew that meant trouble.

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Excerpt from the novel, "Cold"
by John Smolens

Produced by Marc Sanchez

Liesl Tiomenen saw the man from her kitchen window. It was snowing so hard that he was barely visible, standing at the edge of the woods. He stared toward the house, his arms folded so his hands were clamped under his armpits. He wore a soiled canvas coat and gray trousers, but no hat. His stillness reminded her of the deer that often came into the yard to eat the carrots and apples she left for them.

Liesl went out into the shed and took Harold's .30-.30 Winchester carbine down off the rack, then opened the back door, holding the rifle across her chest. The man didn't move. The north wind chilled the right side of her face; her fingers on the stock felt brittle. He was young, not more than 25, and she could see that he was shivering.

"All right," she said. "You can come inside."

He began walking immediately, his legs lifting up out of the snow that was almost to his knees.

"Slowly," she said. "And put your hands down at your sides where I can see them."

He stopped and watched her. Then he dropped his arms to his sides and continued on toward the house.

When he reached her, she pointed the rifle at his chest and he stopped. She stared at him a moment, her blue eyes showing no panic or fear, only determination. He tried to quit shaking, but it only made it seem worse.

He stepped into the shed and opened the door to the warm, heavy air of the house. There was the smell of burning wood, and something else that he couldn't identify, a pleasant scent of damp earth. It made him lightheaded, and his shaking only got worse.

He fell to the floor, his palms slapping on the wood, and didn't move.

Liesl walked around him, watching his face. There was a small cut beneath his eye and twigs and pine needles were entangled in his short black hair. She poked him in the shoulder with the rifle, but he didn't respond. He wasn't faking.

When he opened his eyes, she was standing at the stove, smoking a cigarette, the rifle tucked beneath one arm and angled down. Not exactly pointed at him, but not far off either.

"A Few Words about Snow"
by John Smolens

It's difficult to imagine the Holiday Season without snow. In song and rhyme, on greeting cards and gift catalogues, the image of a white Christmas is, as Bing Crosby croons endlessly this time every year, a dream. In places where snow is unlikely, Christmas lights seem tawdry, and yard displays of Santa's sleigh and reindeer lose their magic. Here in northern Michigan, when it doesn't snow in December, a genuine anxiety sets in as the days dwindle toward Christmas Eve. There's no relief quite like that first morning when I get up and look out at a fresh blanket of snow.

What exactly is snow? Bernard Mergen's fine book, "Snow in America," examines snow from scientific, cultural, literary, and artistic perspectives, demonstrating that throughout our history snow has been one of the most elementary and cohesive forces in the human experience.Snow is a cluster of ice crystals that form around an invisible speck of matter—a piece of dust drifting high in the atmosphere; and in a process called "sublimation" the crystals continue to accumulate about the speck, causing it to gain weight and descend toward earth. The common perception is that no two snowflakes are alike; we believe this thanks to a Vermont farmer named Wilson Alwyn Bently who, between 1884 and 1911, spent his winters photographing thousands of snowflakes. The design of each snowflake is determined by numerous factors, including the dimensions of the nuclei and air temperature. Just below 32 degrees water crystallizes into single hexagonal plates about the speck of dust.

Between 27 and 23 degrees, the crystals resemble needles. From 23 to 18 degrees, the crystals form prismatic hollow columns. At lower temperatures the crystals often create the star- or tree-shaped snowflakes, known as dendrites. A snowflake descends through the atmosphere at a rate of about one foot per second (the more aerodynamic needle-shaped flakes fall faster than dendrites), and depending on wind currents and weather conditions a snowflake can be airborne from a few minutes to five or six hours.

Snow has been a metaphor in literature at least as far back as Homer, who wrote some nine-thousand years ago, "Words like winter snowflakes."Certain languages have many words for snow, each defining a different condition or property. The Eskimo language has two root words for snow:Qanik, for snow in the air; and aput, for snow on the ground. In Russian and Siberian languages there are dozens of linguistic distinctions regarding snow. The word "nast" describes the thickened crust on the surface of a mature snow cover, yet if the crust is so thin that it cannot support the weight of a man, hunters and traders in Siberia call it "skovorda," which inexplicably means "frying-pan."

And yet we still haven't given a name to all the various kinds of snow. For example, what do you call those heavy chunks of snow and ice that build up behind the wheels of your car, some often so tight to the front tires that they inhibit your ability to steer? You may call them names when you bruise your big toe as you try to kick them loose, but we have yet to give them a proper name. Certainly they deserve their own word, one that is neither mellifluous nor pretty. They're not exactly "snow," nor are they "slush." Perhaps we should call them "snurl."

Writers never tire of describing snow, and its effects upon us. Emily Dickenson once described the ruts in a dirt road as filling with "Alabaster Wool" (using capital letters, of course), and Farley Mowat has written about a psychological condition he calls "snowphilia." Recalling his childhood in Wales, Dylan Thomas wrote, "One Christmas was so much like another ... that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."

Some writers have suggested that snow contains secret knowledge of life's mysteries. One 19th century newspaper column began: "My subject is snow, which I propose treating in the manner following: First, of the beauties of snow. Second, of the music of snow. Third, of the pleasures of snow. Fourth, of the benefits of snow. Fifth, of the moral teachings of snow." For others the lessons to be learned from snow are not so easily gleaned. While musing beside Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau came to the conclusion that snow possesses a code that needs to be broken: "This plain sheet of snow which covers the ice of the pond, is not a blankness as yet unwritten, but such as is unread." Early in the twentieth century a humorist observed that "The snow shovel will find the boundary line between two lots more accurately than the best surveyor." Perhaps he was a neighbor of Robert Frost.

Bernard Mergen categorizes what he calls the many "useful metaphors in snow." Throughout literature snow has come to represent negation or nothingness, including isolation, silence, death, and the unknown. Or it can suggest love, purity, and fragility. Other times snow represents the tension between order and chaos in nature. And, of course, snow is often associated with memory, especially the recollections of childhood. Perhaps the artist's relationship to snow may be summed up in these lines from a poem by Richard Hugo:

To write a snow poem you must ignore the snow Falling outside your window.
The relentless nature of snow often reminds us of the inevitable fate we all share. One of the most famous passages regarding snow and mortality is in James Joyce's story "The Dead," which concludes:
Snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
But snow also affirms our hopes and dreams; it can crystallize a time and a place forever in our memories; it can confirm our moment in the world.One of my favorite passages comes from the opening paragraph of John Cheever's novel The Wapshot Scandal:
The snow began to fall into St. Botolphs at four-fifteen on Christmas Eve. Old Mr. Jowett, the stationmaster, carried his lantern out onto the platform and held it up into the air. The snowflakes shone like iron filings in the beam of his light, although there was really nothing there to touch. The fall of snow exhilarated and refreshed him and drew hima€"full-souled, it seemeda€"out of his carapace of worry and indigestion.

The afternoon train was already an hour late, and the snow (whose whiteness seems to be a part of our dreams, since we take it with useverywhere) came down with such open-handed velocity, such swiftness, that it looked as if the village had severed itself from its context on the planet and were pressing its roofs and steeples up into the air."


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