No two snowflakes are alike. In these long and godless days of exact sciences on prime time TV this never seemed especially surprising. You only had to consider the molecules and the atoms that they contained. And still she couldn’t see it. In her mind and in her eyes, the idea refused to work. The snowflakes were alike, every single one of them the exact copy of each other. Clear as a fact, though for some reason she had never thought of it before.
Because sometimes the snow was too much. In a way, it always was. The snow, the sickening whiteness of the whole thing. It was not constructed out of billions and billions of perfect snowflakes falling from the sky and piling on top of each other. Not in Bethel, Alaska. The whiteness was somehow growing out of the earth, rising up like some sprawling plant with a fatal disease. One look out of the window gave you the deafening hangover that was as white and depressing as an immaculate hospital gown.
One look out of the window made her shiver and shake and wish there was enough food to get her through another week. She groaned, she moaned, she threw her blindfold onto the bed and then slowly drifted out of her bedroom. Accompanied by the morning silence, the creaking hardwood and one, two, three, four, five, six cats. Hissing with unscrupulous love and purring with impatience, leading her sulky white ankles to the kitchen. She knew these cats were the only reason why she had to wake up at 7:15. “Time”, her friends said when she moved here twelve years ago. Friends from the City who had come to visit one or two times. “You will have to grope for it”. She kept groping for it like they told her to, and still she felt nothing. But she felt the house, the house was physically empty.
As she watched the cats, thinking black coffee with no sugar, she realised there was something wrong about the cats. They were scurrying noiselessly about the plates and the bowls and fighting for a better spot. She could not place it yet, and the feeling was strange and unsettling, like a nasty smirk you read in your lover’s smile. And yes indeed: the six cats were her six lovers.
She got up from her chair and decided to make her black coffee with no sugar. This would give her time to get distracted and focus on the deep smell and thick black liquid that would no doubt wake her up. She even remembered that when she was a child she would sometimes get this enormous cavity in her tooth. Cavities led to dentists, and for a few weeks and even months she would not say a word to her parents. Flossing, mouth-washing and brushing her teeth three times a day, with added force. She was convinced her cavity would go away and everything would get back to normal. But it never did. It got worse, and the dentist complained about this awful neglect and how it could mean pulpitis or some such thing.
Emily pushed away her cup and bravely turned around. Seven cats. Yes, she could not be mistaken. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Seven was wrong. As a matter of fact, Emily had six cats. The ginger one that was slurping yesterday’s milk and pushing and intimidating others, he was not hers. The ginger one was an intruder. And then, before she could think of a course of action or a plan, Emily noticed something else that was not supposed to be there. A note. A casual handwritten note on the fridge door that was meant to be this plain horrible white with no stuck-on recipes or silly magnets of Brussels and Tokyo. Emily ran through the note five times, then removed it squeamishly, turned it over, crumpled it and threw it away.
Well, there was work and there was TV and there was plenty of time to deal with any crisis. If there was one thing certain about time in Alaska, it was the fact that there was plenty of it. Time was like snow: vast, white, depressing, with no beginning and no end. And thank God today, like any other day, Emily had things to cut and sew and stitch and rip open. Emily was a seamstress. With six, maybe seven cats, which was of course no more than a cliché. But then you wanted to be a cliché, or you didn’t mind being one. It meant that despite anything she still was flesh and blood, not dull and translucent like the rest of this town. Waving at her from passing trucks, eyeing her in grocery stores and sometimes even talking to her. On the phone, in the streets: well, there were clients. Bethel, she came to realise, was a town of zombies inhabited by ghosts.
Emily fell down onto her chair and got down to work. With the fat nameless ginger cat on her mind. The bully. The intruder.
She knew she would have to get rid of him, sooner rather than later. The kitchen looked crowded and she would have to buy more food. Over the next day Emily tried to catch him a few times, but he slipped away like a smart night-time mosquito you can never beat. Maybe she wasn’t trying all that hard. The hissing put her off (she had never heard such aggressive hissing) and besides there was something about those eyes that got through her skin and tickled her bones. Hungry provincial eyes, they were almost human-like. Emily had to look away and gradually, grudgingly give in. There was a question she did not want to answer, which was how the cat got inside in the first place. In her mind, the question was similar to who wrote the note and that was something she could not handle. Besides: six or seven, what difference did it make. He would stay with her and perhaps one day she would think of a name.
She didn’t. She had no use for the other six names, but this time she realised the cat would have to remain an outsider without a name. The arrangement that went remarkably well with the fact that he ate more than the others, was a lot more conspicuous due to his ginger color, and was effectively snubbing Polly and Ben and Hazy and... The cat stood out and there was no interaction with her or this whole place. Just two insolent eyes that gave her shivers and even made her close the kitchen door behind her one or two times.
But even so – she forgot. Everyone and everything was born to be forgotten in the white snow and the white nights that flowed into white days so seamlessly and in such painless agony. And then there were all these little incidents that just kept happening. “How is your cat, Mrs. Harris?” Mary asked, and Emily got annoyed. She got annoyed even by the fact that she knew the girl’s name was Mary. But then was it really her fault when the badge was so flashy you could barely look away?.. “Fine, thank you”. She of course wanted to ask how the hell she even knew about the new cat, but it was too late now. They knew. They just knew. Mrs. Harris. That too was their own doing. She never said it, never actually uttered those sounds in over ten years. And then another incident, by a black car on her way back home from the store. Her boots plopping through the snow, slovenly, slowly, like in a bad dream of escape, and they thought she wouldn’t hear. She did. “That’s Emily Harris. Fuck knows what happened to her. No family, no nothing. Living alone with a bunch of cats. Sad story. I once heard that she…”. Thankfully, Emily missed the rest and simply stared back with silent vengeance. And all she saw was two thick black beards with two cigarettes sticking out of them and sighing invisible smoke into the thin Alaskan air. The men were silent. The scene was so ordinary that she blinked, she turned around, she walked away.
Emily stopped thinking about the cat. He still was wrong, different, nameless, aggressive, and she would have much preferred him out of the house. However, it’s not like she could do anything about that. Besides, it got worse. Having fed the cats in the morning, Emily put the kettle on and began waiting. Waiting for a kettle to boil was something that actually worked in this part of the world. It was at that point that she saw a note on the fridge door, a different one this time. Several days ago she wrote it off as a non-sequitur, as a bad mistake best forgotten. Emily stood up, got closer and read the words. The handwriting was bigger now, bigger even than it was on Mary’s badge in the supermarket. The note said “Darling, please buy some milk”.
Emily read the words again and again, as if they could disappear or else rearrange miraculously and make a different sentence. She thought about local kids and her clients and even Judith. None of them could write that because she was always around and she would have noticed. The handwriting wasn’t familiar, but this was not the worst part. By far the worst part was that she was indeed running out of milk.
“What absolute twaddle”, Walter might have said. Walter was family. Her uncle from the City she hadn’t seen in ages. Walter. Why did she even think of him?
That day Emily could hardly work and even made an unlikely phone call to tell Mr. Bernstein that his coat would not be ready on Thursday. It was a second note that appeared later, this time clipped to the living room window. Like something a mad scientist would do so as not to forget his epiphany, his eureka moment. “Darling, please water the flowers”. Emily hadn’t watered the flowers in seven days.
And then more notes over the next week, calling her ‘darling’ and reminding her of things she was forgetting about. Wishing her a good day, quoting poetry, confessing love. Casual and tender, tender but casual.
Maybe if she could tell someone about it the whole thing would go away? A note from yesterday (clipped to the TV screen) said “Why not call Judith, honey?” As an act of defiance, Emily didn’t, but in general she was surprised at how often she chose to follow the instructions. Once she even switched on the TV set not for Discovery or National Geographic but to watch a silly romantic comedy that was supposed to make her feel better. And it did. On average there were three notes a day now. A few times Emily stood near the place where a note was supposed to appear, but of course nothing happened. Or it did, but in a different part of the house (house which, she came to realize, was much too big for a middle-aged woman with a bunch of cats). Once she even found it under her pillow, telling her not to read in bed and try to get as much sleep as she could. Emily did not see magic or mysticism in any of that because she believed in neither. Belief would have led to paranoia which was the last thing Emily needed in a city of quiet and non-threatening mental decay. And still this could not go on forever – even if one look outside, at the snow creeping up from the ground, told her that it probably could.
But there were people. For instance, there was Mr. Cusack who came for his black velvet jacket and asked for a cup of tea. Emily refused. A handsome man? Possibly, she could no longer tell. Or maybe she was simply scared of the fact that Mr. Cusack would go into her kitchen and feel the smell. All those cats. There had to be something rotten and nasty and wet. There were people and there were complaints. When Mr. Cusack called two days later, she knew it was about the jacket. He told Emily that she had forgotten to sew an inside pocket which he had specifically asked her to do. Cynthia, his wife, insisted that he should call and straighten things out. He did and then he hung up. Emily thought there was nothing worse than offending people you despised.
As for the cat, he was still around. Nameless and wrong, but already inevitable. It was hard to believe he had only appeared four weeks ago. He still bossed other cats around and got most of the milk and the cat food, but at least he began showing his weak sides. For instance, he was scared of Emily’s sewing-machine, which made her use it more often and in a much more intense way. Feeling the vibrations and the stamping noise, he jumped off the sofa and disappeared inside the house. She smiled to herself, smiled to the six cats (her cats) lying around. Three or four times – she began to lose count – the note read: “Don’t work too much, dear. You will wake the neighbors”. Waking the neighbours was a ridiculous notion, because the house was isolated and Alaskan snow made the air soundproof. And still she followed the instruction. And got even more complaints.
Maybe she was going insane. Maybe it was time to become normal – or at the very least like everyone else around. But what was she supposed to do? She played some radio, she bought a paperback bestseller, she watched even more TV. None of it worked. None of it made any sense or seemed more reasonable than lying around and following a dozen boring Twitter accounts of her friends from the City. She knew it was sad, but at least it was addictive.
And then at last Judith came over. Unexpected as ever, she just knocked on the door and barged in as if a best friend or a cheeky babysitter. Judith (Judy really, but Emily preferred Judith) worked at a post office and seemed like a genuine person. That was the way Emily thought of her: genuine. Emily missed her whenever the absence lasted longer than two weeks, but she never invited Judith herself. There never seemed to be a reason. Even now – it was spontaneous. Like a potential war widow, Emily nervously dashed her eyes from the bag to the face to the movements. But there was no letter. No parcel. Not a word.
A note earlier that day, like an abandoned napkin lying by the kitchen sink: “Air the room, honey. It’s important”. Which she duly did, and now there was Judith sitting around, talking and smiling and doing all those things other people did. And not feeling the dank smell of a thousand cats inhabiting this room. Nasty and rotten and wet.
“Coffee?” she asked. Well, yes of course: coffee. Black, with sugar, the way she, Emily, never drank it.
“You look awful. Are you sick?” That was it. Genuine, heart on her sleeve, that kind of stuff. Emily tried to recollect her latest reflection in the mirror, but what she got was so hazy and vague that it may have been someone else entirely.
With another person around, the house was not so much alive now as slowly convalescing from a severe coma. Emily could feel it. The wallpaper got a bit closer to the walls and even the tap was no longer dripping so loudly. Emily and Judith were sitting in the kitchen, talking. Mostly Judith, who was probably saying something about her mother who was in a rehab after years of addiction to morphine. Those fucking nurses, her line of choice. Emily made an effort to listen. She did not want Judith to just tell her story, get up and leave, but at the same time she had no idea how she was supposed to tell her about the notes. Or the cat. “Air the room, honey. It’s important”.
“Cats are doing fine”, Emily said, as if replying to Mary’s question from a few weeks ago. “Must be in my bedroom”.
“Cats? Patrick Tracy?.. How is your work by the way? I’ve heard there are complaints. There was a talk at the post office the other day…”.
“What absolute twaddle. That miserable Patrick Tracy, whenever he walks in the street I tend to get to the other side. There’s nothing worse than small-town arrogance, but there you go. And still a teenager. The City would swallow him like a bad joke. Brought me his jeans a couple of weeks ago, wanted them shorter. I did the job. Then he calls me three days ago to tell me one leg was longer than the other. That prick, Judith, that fucking prick. I might move out, you know. Found some vacancies in the City”.
“The city? You mean Montreal?”
Yes, of course she meant Montreal. Montreal was the City.
“They will appreciate. They know I’m good”.
“You want to get back?” Judith stopped drinking her coffee. There was too much sugar and she was becoming aware of her bag lying by her side. She got up to leave but Emily motioned her to stay.
“I almost forgot. I want to show you the dress I did yesterday. It’s really good, possibly one of my best”.
“Okay”, said Judith, sitting down with cheerful reluctance. “Who was it for?”
But Emily was gone now, leaving her alone in a kitchen that looked a hundred years older than the way it did last time she was here. And Emily. Emily looked older too. Older and sick. Like she had eaten something bad and this bad would live inside her permanently. Not this playful, happy creature she had once known. And ‘Judith’, what was that about? She looked around. She saw plates and cups and spoons and knives unwashed for five, maybe seven days. She saw a bowl with cat food that no cat would touch, however hungry. What was going on here? It was only a month, hardly a break up or a separation.
And then Judith saw a neat pile of notes inside a half-open cupboard. She knew this was wrong, she had no right to pry, but there were too many questions.
She read the notes quickly, because Emily could be back any second now (what could be taking her so long?). The least confusing thing about these notes was Emily’s childish handwriting. Judith had only seen it once, the day Emily had to write and sign a parcel for her husband who was away. When was it? Eight, ten years ago? She had forgotten. But she still remembered the sprawling handwriting, which was so clear and so unlike all those crackpot symbols she sometimes couldn’t discern on the envelopes and the cards. What could it all mean? “Water the flowers?” Did they have any? “How was your sleep, baby?” Actually this one was more crumpled than the others, and the handwriting was different. Man’s handwriting. She read and reread this last note a few times before she realised she was looking at something wrong and possibly even dangerous. She also realised the clock showed late, late afternoon and she had three or four destinations left on her itinerary and Emily was not coming back.
She bumped into them on her way out, just as she was stepping onto the pavement. They were getting out of the car, and they both looked so new and exciting and maybe a little out of place. She hadn’t seen them in over a month. Walter and Mary smiled back. Somewhat tired, exhausted, but happy to be back.
“Welcome home! How was the fishing?”
“Oh not bad. Thanks, Judy. Caught a few. Mary caught a cold, though, but it’s okay”.
Mary smiled faintly. It was slightly annoying that a holiday should be spoiled by a sore throat, but in the end worse things could happen. She was okay.
“You saw Emily?” Walter asked. “How is she? Missed us?”
Judy pulled at her strap and tried to look busy, but all she got was something vague and rabbit-like.
“She did. She missed you a lot. She’s inside, waiting. Sorry, got to run”.
Back when she began working as a postwoman, Alex made her read the first novel by Charles Bukowski. It was called Post Office, and maybe she was supposed to learn something from it. If so, she totally missed out (Alex was a bit of a headcase though), but now she kept running away from Walter and Mary, thinking this incident would have been a worthy inclusion in Bukowski’s odd little book. There was a lingering feeling of regret though: she should have taken those notes with her and burned them. Or better still – buried them in the snow.
In the meantime, Walter and Mary entered the house. They were about to ring the doorbell when they noticed the rift. The door wasn’t shut properly and they could make a surprise entrance that her playful spirit would no doubt appreciate. But the house seemed hollow. Despite the furniture and the pictures and the disarray of jeans, blouses, coats and sweaters. All scruffy and torn apart.
The house gave away nothing in reply, but Mary ran out of the kitchen with Patrick Tracy in her arms. Patrick was twisting his head around, meowing embarrassingly. He looked sick and malnourished and even his ginger color was more of a depressing yellow. “Where’s your mistress?” asked Walter. Mostly to relieve the fear creeping into Mary’s face. Patrick said nothing and pawed his way down to the floor.
The house was a mess, not least because of these bizarre notes sticking from the walls, the floor and even the ceiling. Walter Harris tore one off the living room window and half-whispered the words: “Darling, they are coming back. Tonight”.
Mary began to cry.
Outside, the month was April, but maybe it was October and maybe even July. In Bethel, Alaska, all months were alike.