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Copyright © 2010

Amber Sparks

When the Weather

Changes You


The year the earth froze hard as diamonds and the sky rained ash, my great-grandparents met and married. That’s the way the story always starts, with a well-established fact: two people met one another and were subsequently married. The details surrounding that fact are stranger, less certain. More like smoke than story. More like mirrors than memory.

My sister Anne and I heard the tale a thousand times from our mother. We never heard a word of it from my great-grandmother, an impossibly proud and silent woman. The only time I ever heard her speak was when I was very young and she was very old, and I was summoned briefly to her deathbed.

You have them, she said, her voice surprisingly deep and strong. You have them in your heart, too. Just like me. Her face was purple and mottled, and her mouth collapsed into itself like a rotten fruit.

What, Gramama, I asked, trying not to get too close. The sour smell of death saturated the bedclothes. What do I have in my heart?

Ashes, she said. Your heart is full of ashes.

That terrible long winter, the year that all of Yellowstone erupted like one massive volcano, ash and soot had filled the sky and mixed with the snow. The entire continent was forced to eat the ash, bathe in it, drink it. Bits of it floated about and stuck in the eye, scratched the skin and clung to the hair.

I wondered if that was what my great-grandmother had meant. If she had drunk of the ashes too heavily and somehow they clotted and clung in her bloodstream, thickened it, gave it a sluggishness and heaviness—a trait caused by pollution that, like the pepper moths’ coloring, would be passed on via mutation to later generations.

But my sister Anne had another explanation. Loneliness, she said, that’s what she means. We’ve all got it in our blood, just like her.

It’s true. My family is a loose confederacy of loners, hooked to others only by the double barbs of blood and chance. It’s a mean loneliness, and it sticks in the heart like ash. Nobody stays long. Not in love, not in friendships, not in houses, not even in the same town. We don’t become handsome elderly couples, doubly blessed with long life and lifelong love. The first blessing might be often visited upon us, but without the lifelong love it twists back on itself, like the bad fairy’s curse at the christening.

I suppose that would make my great-grandmother the bad fairy. She was an enigma, a widow in her nineties when I knew her: a woman who played Debussy’s Children’s Suite for us and made us giggle, who played Beethoven like a rolling storm while we clutched at each other in panic, a woman who was otherwise dour and silent and who did everything in secret. Even when she smoked it was like she was hiding something, hand cupped around her cigarette the way Nazis smoke in films.

She was severe, disciplined, and she never smiled. Her music was the only passionate, the only living thing about her. It wrapped round her in thick layers, curled and twisted about, and seemed her only channel for expression as she calmly played, back straight as a rod, hair still black and hanging to her waist until the day she died.

Her tale sounds romantic at first, like a love story—but if you listen to the cadences, the code words buried in Edwardian sentiment, you can hear a fire dying out. Cold water rolling over flickering embers.

I can never tell it quite right, not like my mother used to tell it. She was a born storyteller. But I tell it anyhow, because it's too important not to pass it on.

Listen, my mother would say, and we listened; we leaned forward to absorb the whole story into our skin and blood and bones. Because this is a story about the weather, and what happens when it changes you.

. . .

In her youth my great-grandmother was a beauty and became a minor star on the New York stage. She was light-skinned and black-haired, tall and slender, perfect—except that her lips were thin and wan. This was one of few signs that she might not be a generous woman: those lips and the extraordinary silence they enclosed. She spoke so little that you would have expected her voice to be rusty, to stick like a drawer with disuse; yet it came out deep, dark, coated with lacquer. She looked like Snow White, but her voice belonged to the Wicked Queen.

She had a fairy tale story, too. The little lost orphan left at the train station, the foundling taken in by a family of vaudevillians. That’s where she learned to play the piano, and she grew up there on the stage. But unlike her family, she never took to comedy—or to film, where many of her adopted brothers and sisters ended up.

We saw her in a silent film once, my sister Anne and I. A short little piece called Flowers for A Fallen Angel or something like that. A silly film, full of the clichés borrowed from the stage that early silent cinema was prone to. But it was easy to see why her film career never took off. She was meant for the far-away of the stage; from the audience, you couldn’t see my great-grandmother’s eyes. You couldn’t tell that her blood was cold, chalky, and that her eyes were dead and flat. From the audience, you were fooled by the deep, rich voice and the lively black hair. But on film, up close, there was a negative energy around her. Even in photos you see it—like someone sleepwalking and hungry.

My great-grandmother had many admirers, but she was not interested in men or women. She wasn’t interested in sex or even in people at all; like Greta Garbo, she only wanted to be alone. She was already writing in her veins the DNA of solitude that she would pass on to us. It was as though she had read ahead, could see that after that year she would never be alone again. She was shoring up the fragments of loneliness against her eventual ruin.

. . .

It was a bad year that started off like the end of the world. The bang, splash, sizzle of Yellowstone exploding was the trigger. It was like a punishment for Westward Expansion. There was much discussion—but theories, religion, superstition were useless. A whole chunk of Yellowstone had simply gone off and buried itself like Pompeii. And after it went, when the dead were mostly accounted for and the dust settled across the sky like a layer of lead, the new troubles began. Crops and animals perished, people, too, from starvation, cold, illness, depression, despair—it seemed the whole continent withdrew from the weather and from the living.

The shut-out sun led to the coldest spring on record in North America since the Little Ice Age. Gas prices, coal prices, the prices of wood and wool—they skyrocketed that April, as it became apparent that it wasn't getting warmer and the sky was still more black than blue. The poor were perishing in record numbers, whole families found frozen, huddled together in dark, iced-over tenements.

After a while, it became common to see strange snow angels here and there. Dead children splayed in dreadful poses, wingless and blue and covered in ice. The crows would circle in frustration, bewildered by the slow rate of decomposition and decay, unable to peck at the eyeballs hard as glass.

At this point, my great-grandfather makes his first appearance in the story. It is my great-grandmother's story, really, but he remains the pivot, changed nearly as much as she by that long winter.

He was the only child of the Washington Square Suffrage Society’s leader and often attended Society meetings. If you were a young suffragette living in New York City, you would certainly have heard of him. He would strike you as he struck most observers: as a fat man with a slightly stooped back, pretty, almost girlish blue eyes, and an oddly confident air. But there was a reason for the confidence, a reason that owed everything to the cold spell.

It had been a good year for my great-grandfather. He had discovered the one thing women wanted more than admiration, more than pretty clothes, more than fine jewelry, more than food and even love: warmth. And he had discovered he could provide warmth in a very satisfying way for the young women his mother was surrounded by.

He had never had any luck with women before. He was young, it was true, possessed of mild, inoffensive features and thick black hair. He was wealthy, too. But he was also very large. Profoundly fat, in fact. And that had kept him from the thoughts or arms of any nice young ladies; he had been forced to buy his embraces before that long winter began.

I never met my great-grandfather; he died of a heart attack long before I was born. But by all accounts he was not a wicked young man. He never attended his mother’s suffragette meetings with the sole purpose of seducing young ladies. He fell into his Don Juan role by accident and good fortune. He had long been dragged to those meetings by his overbearing mother, where he’d doted on many of the pretty young girls in attendance. And they’d never paid him any attention at all.

So you can understand why he might have been perhaps too eager to take advantage of this new miracle. When the prettiest of the girls, Hilda Stone, shared a sofa seat with him at a meeting and discovered the warmth radiating from his big bulky body, it all started so suddenly that he was quite overwhelmed. Certainly he had no intention of ruining the young women. Or, god forbid, his terrifying mother finding out. He always had his driver get them home before anyone could discover they’d been out. But he didn’t really understand about women, and men, and babies—so the real miracle was that none of the women he’d wooed and warmed was carrying his.

Scientists promised the cold would end. But they fought bitterly about when, some saying six months, others guessing at two or three years, even a decade. And the public grew weary, diffident, tired, as secret obsessions began to take over civilized lives.

People began to inhabit their homes like mice, holed up in tiny corners, hiding from the cold and trying to remember where their passions lived. Intellectuals wrote books about desert climates, and polar exploration finally lost the last of its charm. Oasis Parties became popular among the very wealthy, who would build up bonfires in fire pits where guests would dance in wild costumes and drink absinthe. More often than not, these parties ended in orgies or house fires. Sometimes both. People were starting to lose their minds a little.

. . .

No one knows why my great-grandmother started attending suffragette meetings. I like to imagine a sort of frequency switched on in my great-grandmother’s head at that moment, her brain open to all the streams of the world, the great minds of the ages. Feeds flying in from Ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment—all the knowledge of the human world tangled up in it, ready to be snatched up and studied. Backs of giants patiently waiting to serve as step stools.

Anyhow, the historical fact remains, and who can say why: my great-grandmother became, briefly, a suffragette. She was a bit of a local celebrity in the city, and added prestige to the Washington Square Suffrage Society. And the Society was, on the whole, delighted by her. She was an actress who smoked cigarettes, drank whiskey, and often wore men’s tweed trousers. She was a woman who did what she liked, and they liked that about her.

At one of those meetings, my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother finally entered the same orbit. Like a magnet, the long weather could finally begin to do its work, exerting its pull on the two strangest branches of my family tree.

My great-grandmother found herself seated next to my great-grandfather. She could feel the heat radiating from him, strong and bright, could smell him—mild hints of animal fat and cheese, lye soap. She shuddered to think of breathing it in deeply; she hated the smell of people. Still, the heat he gave off was the heat she longed for all of the time, everywhere she went, even in her sleep and in her dreaming.

He smiled at her, and took her hand to kiss it. She had heard some of the other girls talking about him. She had not believed it. But now she knew the snow was piling up outside, dirty and foul, and her ankles would sink into it and her leather shoes would soak up the water, and her feet would ache with cold until she could sit in front of the kitchen stove with her stockings off. She smiled back at him, a finer actress than she had ever been on stage, desperate for a little fire.

. . .

There were no Oasis Parties or any other scandalous goings-on at my great-grandfather's house. It was a Respectable House, and his mother made sure it stayed that way. She had the servants put out the gas lamps at precisely nine o’clock every night to save fuel. She was a very practical woman, and besides, she believed it was unhealthy to stay up late. All decent, God-fearing people are asleep by dark and up by dawn, she would say, never an original woman. The fact that it was dim all the time then and dark by dinner did not alter her arrangements in the slightest. At precisely nine, she would say goodnight to her son, climb the staircase, and retire to her room. My great-grandfather would usually do the same.

On one especially cold night, my great-grandmother was waiting for him. She had leaves in her black hair from climbing the trellis, and a scrape on her cheek where a vine had brushed her skin. He recognized her from the meetings, and didn’t wonder at what she wanted. It was plainly written in her shivering frame, in the wild look in her eyes.

His hands were warm as he held hers, and his cheeks were red, and she, who had never known love, never loved anyone but had stood apart, cool and calm—she allowed him to envelope her, to pool around her and inside of her and fill her with light and flame and familiarity. And she fell in love with warmth itself, became instantly addicted as if it were an opiate, fell in love with the appassionata of his body heat played out against her paper-thin white skin.

. . .

Food prices soared and farmers starved, surrounded by their frozen fields. Those in tenements were still dying by the thousands, including those who didn’t freeze or expire from hunger but killed themselves hoping for the fires of hell. Some blamed the suffragists, called them New Eves, convinced God was punishing man for the vanity of woman. Some blamed the Catholics; some, the Jews. Faith reversed itself, cults sprung up around Prometheus and Ra, and few believed in the priests.

No one believed in the scientists. No one thought it would end.

One night, my great-grandmother slept in her own bed, a hot water bottle at her feet. The warmth was feeble, barely reaching her ankles before dying out. She shivered and thought of my great-grandfather, of his oppressive but necessary heat. The currency of cellulite. And she knew she would have to go back again, to that house, to him—because she had fallen in love with warmth itself.

And so it finally came to be: my great-grandmother changed her life forever, trading solitude for a chance to swim in the sun.

Poor Great-Grandfather. He certainly thought he loved her, but he was also terribly afraid she would leave him. She almost never spoke to him. She just seemed to want him near, especially in the dark, especially in the cold, when the fire had gone out and each of his heartbeats signaled the only warmth in the room.

At times she clung to him, made him feel proud, made him feel certain he would never need to be alone again. But at other times, he would catch her watching him, and her stare would roll through him like ice water. Then, he felt certain that she would eat his soul in the end.

When he was gone, she would lock herself in the conservatory and play the piano for hours, or stay cocooned in her bed under piled-up furs. She ignored the servants and her disapproving new mother-in-law and became a ghost, a succubus living on warmth and music alone.

But only a few months after they married, the sky began to clear. Temperatures finally began to rise. And when they were high enough, my great-grandmother left my great-grandfather’s bed for good.

She had her baby and cried for the first time in her life when she saw the new creature, unnerved and horrified by what she had made. She knew it was her own fault. She’d eaten the apple. But she would punish him—punish her children and her children’s children, and their children, too—by cursing her own rotten blood and spilling a little into their veins. Not enough to kill them. Just enough to consign them to the solitude she longed for, and would never have again. She bent over her baby’s cradle, pulled a pin from the band of her hat, and stuck her finger until a single drop appeared. It hung like a ruby from her finger for just a second, then splashed onto the child’s tiny tongue. The baby shifted in her sleep and licked her lips, restless, leaving a faint scarlet smear at the corner of her mouth.

. . .

My sister Anne has my great-grandfather’s face; she is round and rosy like he was. She pretends to herself that the story doesn’t matter. She has been married twice, but they were short affairs, bookended by solitude. Still, Anne thinks she can escape what’s in the blood. Every time she begins a new relationship, she calls me and says, You see? We’re not doomed to be alone like Gramama.

I remind her that Gramama was never alone, and that it was worse for her because of that. Anne usually hangs up on me then. I understand she is trying to live a better life, to somehow emerge from this family legacy a changeling. A swan from the duck’s nest.

But I know better. I am very like my great-grandmother, I think. I don’t have her beauty or her height, but I feel my eyes are strange and lonely as hers. In groups I stand apart; in photographs I have a hungry look, startling and yet sad. I can’t bear to be touched by other people. I am used to Anne, but not to anyone else.

And I don’t want anyone to be used to me.