By Marty Duncan
The Pilot's Mate
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Shin'ar, My Love
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Gold...then Iron
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Iron Lake Burning
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Black Powder, Gray Hope:

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Black Powder, Gray Hope:
A Civil War Romance

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Black Powder, Gray Hope:
New Americans

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     The tall man flicked the mailbox door and it latched. Holding a small pile of letters in his left hand, he stretched his right hand toward the young girl who was standing nearby. She wrapped her hand around the last two fingers of his hand, and tugged. “Come on,” she said, pulling him up the lane toward his cabin. Snow was quietly settling on the tall man’s back and upon the evergreens that marched in solitary file up the lane. The snow was fluffy …like our favorite dream of playing in the clouds. Just like in our dreams, the snow was unreal, diaphanous and ethereal and pure white cotton rolling off the elbows of the sentinel evergreens.
      Man and girl walked slowly, enjoying the soft confetti feel of the snow. To their left and their right tall evergreens and stark poplars stood silent guard up the slight incline toward the man’s cabin. While they watched, soft white wraiths flittered and skittered, hither and yon, settling into a cloud of white that covered the road to ‘Grampa’s’ cabin. To the girl, it appeared the tops of clouds were tossing and circling around her feet. She stomped her right foot and watched the cloud twirl outward, a surge larger than her boot. She looked up at Grampa and he stomped a foot, causing a burst of snowy cloud to flow away from his black boot.
      They were two, bound by time and quiet. He wore his old gray parka with a bright green cap. She wore mukluks and a coat that fell below her knees. He enjoyed the sound of her voice. She wanted only to bring the mail back to the cabin where Gramma Ann was making ginger cookies and baking bread. She pushed the woolen scarf away from her nose.
      “Is it there?” she asked.
      “Is it?” he chuckled, holding the mail in one hand while searching with the other. He found the red envelope and looked at it. “The return address says ‘Alison Harant …is that it?” he said, waving the letter over her head.
      “Grampa, you know that’s my letter,” she said, pretending to be frustrated with the tall man. She spluttered once, and coughed and reached up to pull her scarf down. “Oh, eeish! I swallowed some scarf.” Her face held the deep blue eyes of a child and the pert, pugnacious nose of a determined four-year-old. Her blond, almost invisible eyebrows were knit together in concentration.
     “You can give it to Gramma,” she added.
     “Yes, Alison,” said her Grampa. He was smiling, enjoying the soft snow and Alison’s excitement. He looked up the lane to where smoke puffed skyward from a tan brick chimney. It was a good house he thought, insulated for Minnesota winters with double-pane windows and thick stucco walls. A long porch crossed the front, where heavy wooden chairs and a porch swing held miniature drifts of snow. On the far side of the house a similar porch was screened in, providing protection in summer from pesky mosquitoes.
     Alison grabbed two fingers of his right hand again. She pulled, urging him to hurry. “It’s my valentine,” she said.
    “You know, a big red heart with lace that I glued on the edges,” she said by way of description. “It also says ‘I love you’ and I signed it,” she quipped.
     The big man smiled, loving her enthusiasm. Three days earlier he had been surprised when Alison’s mother told him about the red envelope with the valentine. Alison had insisted on mailing it in St. Peter, knowing it would reach Grampa’s mailbox in two days, perhaps three. Grampa’s cabin was north and east of Brainerd, on the Whitefish chain of lakes. The red envelope would be sorted in Minneapolis before being sent on to Brainerd.
     “Gramma will be waiting to give you another hug, Alison.”
     “She always kisses me,” added the girl while stomping through the next three steps. The snow swirled away from her feet. She looked up. In the late afternoon light, she could see the house with Grampa’s van parked in front of the garage. Their track from the cabin, barely ten minutes old, was nearly obscured by the fast-falling snow.
     They were almost up to the porch when she stopped, momentarily pulling her Grampa to a halt. She looked up at him through the falling flakes of white.
     “What is love?” she asked quietly.
      The big man didn’t respond. He stood there, in the silent snow, looking down into her expectant face. He pulled her forward, and she stepped up onto the porch. Alison turned and looked at her Grampa.
      “Let me think about it. I have to brush off the van and put it away.” He gave her all the mail and she turned to the door. She was already intent on knocking and playing ‘mailman’ when the door opened and Gramma said, “So there you are.”
      The big man turned toward his van, knowing his granddaughter would be safely into the house in a moment. He opened the driver’s side door on the dark green van and pushed the garage door opener. Behind him, he heard Alison telling Gramma all about the snow and how it ‘poofs’ when you stomp your foot. He reached into the garage and grabbing a broom, began brushing the snow off the front and top of the van. With most of the snow off, he moved the van into the garage and turned the engine off. He slid out of the van, shut the door and walked to the front of the garage.
       He stood and watched the snow falling. Off to the west, he could see clear sky and late afternoon sunlight falling on the southern shore of Whitefish Lake. ‘Just like a summer squall’ he thought to himself. ‘Drops the rain, and moves on to the east.’ He knew the weatherman had predicted strong winds for the early evening. The wind was probably pushing the ‘snow squall’ to the southeast, away from the lake.
      “How do I describe love?” he said to the snow and the distant sunlight and the whispering Norway pines, his pines now ten years old. He hit the switch for the garage door and walked around an eight-foot soft-white pine to the porch. Looking to the west, where sunlight bounced off the frozen lake, he saw a swirl of snow lifting from the ice and pushing onto shore. Three miles away, a gray cloud of blowing snow seemed to be coming in his direction.
      “Winds gonna hit in about ten minutes,” he said, addressing his Norway pines. Behind him, he heard the front door opening.
      “Come on inside, Tom. And stop mumbling to your trees.” She was smiling and holding the storm door open for him. His wife of 38 years was wearing a white apron outside her favorite woolen slacks with a green plaid flannel shirt, the sleeves pushed up to her elbows. She had taken off her glasses and there was a smudge of flour on the side of her face. Her blue eyes twinkled when he smiled at her. He knew that she received an enormous charge of felicity when Alison came to visit.
      “She wants me to open a red envelope,” said Ann laughing while she backed into the family room of their cabin. Two large sofas with pine logs for legs and two great reclining chairs filled the space in front of a fireplace. The fireplace itself dominated the western wall of the room, with inlaid fieldstone rising to a heavy oak mantel. Two lamps stood on side tables and a heavy red-brown rug covered most of the family room floor. Alison was climbing onto a stool at the counter that gracefully separated the family room from the kitchen. “What could it be?” said Gramma smiling, pretending ignorance.
      “It’s right here,” said Alison, waving the red envelope in the air. She watched while Grampa stamped his feet on the porch, walked into the family room and kicked off his boots. He hung his parka on the hook by the door and tossed his cap onto a side table, where a pile of scarves, mittens, gloves, and stocking caps waited for their owners. When he turned toward the kitchen Ann was reaching for the envelope. He walked over and put his arm around Alison and watched his wife open the envelope.
      “Oh, it’s beautiful,” said Alison’s Gramma pulling the valentine out of its envelope. She showed the heart to Grampa, who stood and looked at the message, without saying a word. His wife reached out with her hand and touched Alison on the cheek. “And I love you, too, sweetheart.”
      Grampa Tom walked across the family room to the window that looked out to the west. “Wind is going to kick up,” he said to his wife. He turned to face his wife at the counter. “Alison wants to know what love is.”
      “And what did you say?”
      “I haven’t. Not yet.” Tom was concerned but had an idea. He knew there had to be a good way to answer Alison’s question. One possibility had occurred to him. He was thinking about it. In thirty-five years as a school administrator Tom always felt confident in the decisions he made. His granddaughter, however, changed Tom’s life. His words carried extra weight and he was acutely alert to the impact of his words.
      The buzzer on the oven began to beg for attention. Gramma Ann reached for her baking mitts, and pulling them on, moved to the oven. When she opened the door, the delicious smell of ginger floated across the kitchen. She pushed the two loaves of bread off the cutting board, making room for the ginger cookies.
      “You’ll have to wait a few minutes, both of you.” She knew her husband could eat a cookie right out of the oven, and more than once had burned his mouth.
       Down the lane toward the road, several of the evergreens were stirring. Snow was streaming off the tips of the trees. To the west, a strong wind was bending trees and blowing up a white swirl of icy snow. Grampa Tom, standing at the window, saw snow streaming across the front porch; making eddies when it encountered the leg of a chair. He turned back to the warm, comfortable kitchen where his wife was using a spatula to remove ginger cookies from the baking tray.
      “Alison, I want you to come with me,” he said, with a commanding tone in his voice. “Put your coat on, please. We’re going out to the porch.” Tom moved to the coat rack and grabbed his parka. He searched through the caps until he found an old green stocking cap and placed it on his head. While he pulled his parka on, he watched Alison climbing down from her stool by the counter.
      “Tom, it’s windy out there,” remarked Gramma Ann, thinking that he couldn’t really intend to take a little girl out into blowing snow that looked dangerous. She watched Alison walk across the family room, directly to her coat that Grampa Tom was holding. She saw Alison step into her boots, then into her coat. She was about to put down the cookie tray and stop him when Tom said, “We’ll be okay. Trust me.”
       Tom opened the door and held out his hand. The little girl placed her hand in his large hand and together they marched through the door and onto the porch.
       The world outside was changed. The soft, fluffy snow was gone, replaced by stinging ice crystals that bit into exposed skin. The sun was setting beyond the western shore of the lake. Overhead, a few bright, cold pinpoints were sparkling in a black sky. The light from inside the family room lit a square patch of porch, illuminating a streamer of snow crystals. Grampa Tom and Alison moved against the wind until they were standing next to a wooden stool in the square of light.
        The little girl turned to look at her Grampa Tom. When she did, she turned her face into the streaming snow. He saw her wince from the sudden shock of the ice crystals nipping at her cheeks. She quickly turned away from the icy blast, and began to pull away from her grandfather’s hand. He held on tightly. He stepped across the wooden stool with one leg, and sat down astraddle on the stool. With his right hand he pulled Alison gently around until she was in front of him. He was sitting with the wind hitting him on the right side, and Alison standing in front, trying to turn her back to the wind.
      “How do you feel?” he asked.
      “Scary,” she said quickly. “I don’t like it out here.”
      “Do you remember you asked what love is?” he said quickly, realizing that the left side of her face was turning pink from the wind.
      “Yes, Grampa.” She squelched an eye shut.
       He continued to hold her hand with his right hand. With his left hand he unbuttoned his parka, and opened it wide. He drew her into his lap, lifted Alison and placed her on his lap. With his right hand, he pulled the massive parka around her until she was entirely enclosed. She was inside a cocoon, snuggled against his flannel shirt, looking out at the sharp wind pushing ice crystals past their porch.
       They sat quietly, listening to the wind rattle through the bare bones of the poplar trees that lined Grampa’s driveway. He said nothing, and taking her feet he lifted them until they were also inside his parka.
       He broke the silence after three minutes to ask her how she felt. She thought about it for a moment. “Safe, Grampa,” she said while patting his tummy. “I’m safe.”
       “I know you are,” he said with a smile. “Shall we go back inside for cookies?”
        She didn’t hesitate. She smiled at her Grampa.


© Marty Duncan


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