The Snow Fort

“The Snow Fort” was first published
in Perigee in 2009.

A small gray cat in Sean’s snow fort was exploring the carefully pounded tunnels that had hardened in the cold. Her steps were hesitant, testing the whiteness to be sure it wouldn’t swallow her up. Moira wondered what the boys would make of tracks in their domain. It wouldn’t have surprised her if they resented this trespass. These days her sons were fiercely territorial. Comings and goings—no matter how routine—made them suspicious. Moira had let the pizza delivery boy come in out of the snow while she fetched her wallet and they got upset about it. When she was late getting back from the supermarket, Michael was close to tears.

Moira shouldn’t have been cat watching. Her rightful post on the rare days when she could work at home was at the living room window, to watch for Sean and Michael returning from school. She glanced at the kitchen clock, scolded herself for losing track of time, and moved into the living room to wait.

She heard the boys before they were in sight. Sean was calling Michael’s name as if it were a slur. Their animosity was indefatigable. Neither could find anything worthy in the other. She used to wonder whether she and Ken might have alleviated the boys’ disharmony had they waited another year to have Michael, or perhaps had him a little sooner. But they had gone by the book—as many as they could find—the majority of which suggested three years’ difference was ideal.

The parenting books served them to the end. They’d agreed the boys would live with Moira. Minimize change, the books instructed, minimize. That was the trick. And tell them together. So they did. Right there in the living room. Moira in the rocker, Ken on the piano stool with Michael, Sean on the floor, as if their father were about to read them all a favorite passage from Huckleberry Finn. Civilized. Almost cozy. An all-for-one-and-one-for-all sort of approach to the business of destroying lives. Except that Michael received the tidy news looking as if his parents had just removed his insides and Sean hadn’t looked at either of them since.

The boys came into view, Moira noticed that Michael was not wearing his wool hat. He had lately adopted his older brother’s defense against the cold: Act tough and you won’t feel it. She opened the door, determined to say nothing about hats. Sean was out of his backpack and into his room before Moira could make contact. Michael sat on the stairs and presented her his foot to remove his boot. Pleases and thank yous had no part in this ritual. He was the son of a long line of Irish mothers and he knew his rights.

He slid across the hardwood floor in his socks, dug a game out of his toy closet, and brought it to his mother to play with him. He did this now whenever she worked at home, ever since he learned that his parents were going to separate. No more heading straight for the video games; he wanted contact, closeness, as if he sensed that such intimacies were finite and theirs might be all but used up. At bedtime he asked for songs again, the ones his mother had sung to both of them when they were small, the ones her mother sang to her. Moira couldn’t remember stopping the songs; they just weren’t part of things after a while. Now she sang them in a whisper so that her voice wouldn’t crack. They were songs from Dingle and Kilgarvin, sad, meant to be sung by women who didn’t break easily, like her mother, a rock-solid, no-nonsense doer of whatever had to be done. Moira was very much her mother’s child. She rarely failed to do what was required or hesitated to say what had to be said. Ken had told her there were times when hesitation might be a virtue, but she could never sense them.

The game was Parcheesi that day. They set it up on the coffee table. Moira sat on the couch; Michael was on the floor. His little figures leapt over hers in a jerky, painstaking effort to reach home, thwarted repeatedly by the unfriendly way the dice fell. Moira moved her pawns randomly, forgetting which direction would take her home, trying to catch snips of talk from the radio amid Michael’s constant chatter. When she drifted too far, he took her chin in his hand and turned her head to look at him.

“I’m green,” he said. “You’re blue.”

“Yes, I know,” she told him.

“You’re moving my greens.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said and tried to undo the damage.

“You don’t want to play.”

“Of course, I do. Let’s start again.”

Michael’s face changed and he sank from his kneeling position and onto his bottom. He rested his head on his arm stretched across the game board. Listless, he began to flick the pawns away like little marbles. Moira rested her hand on his to keep him from doing it, and he looked at her, his eyes filling with tears. She was struck by how difficult it was to love a child, how scary. Even when the boys were infants, she feared she wasn’t doing it right. Their tears and sadness were mysteries to her, haunting tests. She would pick them up, soothe them, change them, rock them, put them to her breast, never sure of what might work. And when something did, the quietness that followed seemed like a deception, a temporary cover for a stubborn riddle that would never be solved.

Moira held her arms out to Michael, invited him to her. He leapt up, eager for her. She relied on him to know what he needed. Her embrace comforted him, but she felt a bizarre responsibility to tell him she was not the answer, that being strong was the only sure protection. Still, his surrender pulled at her, made her wish she could do the same. Sean once had that kind of effortless trust in her, but he stiffened now, held back. Her mother, too, reacted that way now when she hugged her. Moira couldn’t remember when she first came to expect this from people, this discomfort, even from Ken.

The garage door opened, the car pulled in and Michael jumped from her lap. His father, his second helping, had arrived. Before Ken could put down his books, Michael attached himself, his arms fast around his father’s waist. Ken bent to hold him and they tumbled to the floor, landed among the micro machines and Parcheesi pieces. Moira could barely stand to watch. Their horseplay made her uneasy. It was artificial, inappropriate, like cast members partying after a flop.

Ken got up, moved toward his wife. Their greetings continued unchanged, the barest brush of cheeks, a hand on a forearm, no more than the resigned meeting of two losing teams. The cold clung to his coat, the skin of his face. Ice hid in the crevices of his shoes.

Moira pulled away, said she wanted to check on Sean, though mostly she wanted to escape Michael’s dissecting stare. The boy wanted to uncover what was changed about his parents, now that they didn’t love each other. But the way they treated each other now, he insisted, seemed no different from when they did. He wanted to know what to look for, he said, when they stopped loving him too. Love isn’t just an action, Moira consoled; it’s a feeling. You can’t see it. Then how do you know, he pleaded, how do you know for sure that someone loves you? You can’t, she wanted to say, but of course she didn’t. She told him that real love—the kind a mother and father have for their children—is forever. She didn’t mention that her own father let decades go by uninterrupted by a word to his children, never knowing where they were or who they became.

Moira found Sean upstairs in his room. He hadn’t taken off his bomber jacket. He lay on his bed, hands tucked behind his head, examining the ceiling like a pilot just down from a long, lonesome flight. She could hear his music despite the headphones. Sean, she said, knowing he wouldn’t hear her. She moved toward him and his face changed, hardened. He blamed her. The matter was a very simple one, as he saw it, with a simple solution: Leave things the way they are.

But they’d passed that point. Ken had found an apartment. He was moving out the next day. The idea of separating, once spoken, had taken on a relentless momentum, like a force long suppressed. She found herself thinking of how she’d miss Ken’s sweaters, the wonderful length and looseness of them. His physical absence was something her mind couldn’t grasp yet. She couldn’t see what an ordinary day would be like. Waking without the smell of his early morning coffee; no longer searching for his keys at night so he’d get out on time the next day. She feared instead that there would be no more ordinary days, only long stretches of loneliness, of wondering what went wrong.

Sean didn’t ask what went wrong. The night his parents told him they couldn’t live together anymore, his face expressed his contempt for them, as if their decision were the consequence of some adolescent snit, some phase that would pass if they didn’t insist on making so much of it.

Moira sat down on his bed and he shifted his weight just enough to avoid contact. “How was school?” she asked. He pulled one headphone away from his face and she asked again.
“Okay,” he shrugged. Talking to his mother was a dreary routine for him, like brushing teeth, one he had to repeat and repeat so as not to break the rules.

Ordinarily, at this point, Moira asked him to remove his headphones, but today she couldn’t. Today his distance was more than she could traverse. She crossed to the window, leaving him to travel the ceiling.

The snowdrifts cast deepening shadows in the yard, morphing into mountains in some great expanse of impassable wilderness. As if on cue, something in the fort moved, a gently gyrating tip of a tail surfacing above the edge of a rampart. “Look,” Moira told Sean. “It’s that cat.” He lifted his headphones, knowing she’d said something, but not sure what. “It’s a cat. There’s a cat in your fort.”

He got to his feet, stood near her to see for himself. The cat settled into the place it had made for itself on Michael’s woolen Giants cap. They could see it was small, only a kitten. “Can I keep her?” he said.

“Keep her? What do you mean?”

“Can I keep her?” he repeated impatiently.

Moira was surprised at the request, although she didn’t know why she should be. The boys had asked for dogs and cats before. She and Ken had never given in. “She’s a street cat. You’ll never be able to catch her.”

“If I catch her, can I keep her?” Sean’s voice was flat, no trace of childish excitement or anticipation, just an arbitrator, negotiating terms.

“We’ll see what your father says,” she told him, realizing at once how ridiculous that sounded now that Ken was leaving.

Sean made a noise, like a laugh but not a laugh, and turned away from her. In a heartbeat, he was pounding down the stairs to the back door. From his window, she watched him move across the deck and down the steps in a slow motion trek toward the curled up cat. Moira wanted to call to Michael, so that he could watch his brother, but she found herself paralyzed by the suspense of it, the slow, steady progress of Sean’s determination. At last at the fort, he stopped. And just when she was sure he’d make a grab for the animal, he did nothing. The cat raised its head, stared. Moira couldn’t see Sean’s face, couldn’t tell whether he was talking to it or just staring back. She waited, found herself as eager as a kid for him to keep the cat from getting away. Sean reached out to the animal, and she watched him with the same feelings of powerlessness and hope she had when he was on the mound, when there was a full count and the next pitch had to be right. The cat lay still as Sean’s fingers settled behind its ear, and the breath Moira had been holding came out in a childish laugh.

She rushed downstairs. At the closet by the back door, she stopped and grabbed her coat. “Michael,” she called. “Put your coat on. Come out back.”

A delightful madness filled her. She tried to help Michael get into his tangled coat, but he raced out to the deck, one sleeve dangling. Ken rushed after them to see what was going on. Sean had the cat on his lap, stroking its back. Moira and Ken stood watching him. “Can we keep it, Mom?” Michael cried.

Sean looked up at his mother, sullen, expecting the worst. “The last thing I need is one more thing to take care of,” she said, which was as good as a yes to them, because Michael ran down to the snow fort, settled down next to Sean, slipping a hand against the cat’s fur. Moira and Ken followed him down.

“If you keep him, you better have a vet check him out,” Ken said, standing near Moira. She was not used to this closeness. His breath was visible as he spoke and she found something oddly intimate about the sight of it, something she no longer had a right to see. She watched the side of his face. His profile was flawless, like the perfectly lit models in a magazine. But his expression, as usual, was closed off. He was never taken unawares. He smiled down at the boys, remembering something maybe. She couldn’t tell. There was no joy in the smile. “I like your fort, guys.”

“I made it,” said Sean, laying claim to the praise.

“Michael must have helped some,” he said, and Moira watched his breath escape again, dissipate into the cold. She remembered a younger, vulnerable face, a time when they were inseparable, each certain of how the other one felt, brazen in the safety of it. At every chance, they’d wrap into one body, one breath.

Now it was anyone’s guess how Ken felt. In the end, when he saw she wouldn’t change her mind, the notion of separating brought no protest from him, no pleading. Dressed in his winter sweat suit, the one the kids gave him for Christmas, he waited for Moira to finish as she presented to him once again, voice trembling, the idea that their marriage had died. He didn’t disagree. We should talk about this, was all he said, as if they had options to explore. He went for his walk that night, even remembered to put the trash barrel out by the curb.

Sean was talking baby talk to the kitten, making Michael laugh. He stopped when he saw his mother watching him, and something made him fear she would resist their keeping it, because he said, “We better bring the cat inside. See what she thinks of the house.”

“Yeah,” said Michael, “let’s take her in.”

Moira heard the need in their voices, the willingness to believe that they could take this animal into their lives and have everything turn out all right. A fierce resistance rose inside her, like a warning. The line must be drawn for them, the risks of these seemingly harmless surrenders made clear. These were the things life did to set you up if you weren’t careful.

“No, we can’t keep it,” she insisted, as if the animal were a leopard.

Sean looked as if she’d slapped him. “Why not? Why?”

“This just isn’t a good time for us to be taking in strays.”

Sean was about to speak again, but Ken cut him off. “It’s such a small thing they’re asking, Moira. Can’t you . . . It’s such a small thing.” His voice was sharp, angry. He rarely spoke with such feeling. “I mean it’s going to be a hard time for them.”

“It’s a complication I don’t need right now.”

“I’m not talking about what you need.” He looked away from her, squatted down near the boys in the fort. They could hear a plow at the top of the street, carving out a means of escape. “Maybe we could keep it at my place,” he said.

Sean looked first at his mother, then at his father. He was on the verge of something. “You’re really going to do it?” he said.

“I don’t understand what you mean, Sean,” said Ken. But Moira did. Sean had himself convinced that it would never really happen, his father would never actually go through with it.

“You’re gonna go live in that stupid apartment?”

Ken didn’t answer him. Taken off guard, he glanced at Moira, questions on his face. Why didn’t we see this coming? Why wasn’t it in the books?

“I understand how you feel, Sean,” he said, desperate for an answer they both knew he didn’t have.

Sean released the cat to Michael and climbed away from the fort. He moved toward the house, got as far as the railing of the deck, about forty feet away from the others. He placed both hands on the railing and leaned into it, like a fighter breathing between rounds. Moira looked away, certain that he would not want her to see him like this, so powerless. She saw it had been a mistake to refuse him.

“He doesn’t want you to leave,” Michael told them, and Moira saw that to Michael it was entirely possible that neither of his parents understood that yet.

“I know, honey,” Moira said, leaning down to reach for Michael. “I know.” But he didn’t come to her, didn’t want to let go of the cat. The animal was more restless with Michael, less willing to be held, and with an odd, unexpected turn of its head, it looked at Ken and spoke what sounded like a plea, as if Ken were a kindred spirit, someone held against his will.

Moira stood again and turned to look at Sean, ready to tell him okay. But by then the ice—glistening, hard, perfectly packed and rounded—had left his hand. She saw only the close of the pitch, the step forward, the hand dangling. The smash into the side of her face brought an explosion of pain, landing her into the fort so suddenly she didn’t even cry out. Michael lost hold of the cat and it darted away, a swift, effortless dash to a hiding place in the far end of the yard. The boys took off after it.

Ken knelt down to look at Moira’s chin, touched the redness. “Get away from me,” she told him, so angry her vision was blurred. She pushed him away and he lost his balance, took a second to right himself. He was startled. This was not like her.

“Moira, calm down.”

“You did this to him.” Her voice was a hiss.

“Stop it.”

“You and your lies.” She sat up, steadied herself against the sloping side of the fort.

He moved closer, rested a hand lightly on her forearm. “Don’t. Don’t do this.”

She recoiled as if burned. “They have a right to know why this is happening.”

“It’s happening because you want it. You want a separation,” he said, his anger controlled, matter of fact.

“And you’re happy to let them think you don’t.”

“I don’t want it.”

“That’s a lie. You just want your own terms, your own schedule. Another two or three years from now, when the time is right for you.” She was breathless, trembling.

“Stop it.”

“Maybe your sons have a right to know who you really are.” She stopped herself, aware that her voice was getting loud. She looked toward the boys, stifled a sob.

“Moira, Moira,” he whispered, leaning closer. He didn’t touch her. They sat silent together in the snow, as if resting from a slope that was out of their league. “I’m not sure even I know that,” he said.

“Spare me.” She detested his find-your-inner-self bullshit. “Things got tough. They get tough for everyone. You didn’t want to work it through.”

“There was nothing left for me by then.” The line was familiar by now, rehearsed. Still, it goaded her that he thought he could stay in hiding, side step the hard parts.

“Nothing left? What about your sons?”

“Please, let’s not do this.”

She saw it was pointless, stayed quiet. But the quiet frightened her. “What are we supposed to do? What?” She was panicky, desperate, as if he had the answer but might refuse to tell her what it was.

“We can stay together. Be a family. We can do it for them.”

She made him repeat it, but she saw what he was offering. She could go numb and all this would pass. She would feel nothing. They’d be doing what they had done before, except this time they’d both know the rules. She almost laughed. It would be more honest than anything they’d had for a while.

Ken touched her hand. “We can do this,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. He squeezed her hand and there was a pause between them, almost a smile.

“I want to,” she told him, and he squeezed again, as if he meant to cheer her on, get her to see that they could put all the ugly details aside. “But I need something,” she said. The words were barely audible, but his face changed. He knew what was coming. “Tell me the truth,” she said. “Tell me why.”

His body sank. With the merest glance, he took his hand away, closed up. She could see what she had become to him, an interloper, an intolerable presence. She was the mother of his children and if he could take them back, the way he’d taken back everything else that connected them, she was convinced he would.

He got up, headed back to the house. He walked slowly, shoulders slumped, the bottoms of his pant legs wet from snow. He slid the glass door aside and ducked, the way he always did, just enough to avoid the low frame. He guided the door back into place just so, to keep it from catching on its track. He knew this house, knew its faults. He belonged here. She saw that.

Moira touched her face, surprised at the tears, hot and urgent, but she knew why she was crying. She was relieved. She didn’t want to know why her marriage had failed. And she was grateful not to have to.

She looked up at the sound of Michael calling to the cat, running zigzag to keep his indifferent little playmate from getting away again. She didn’t call to him, but she hoped he wouldn’t stay out too long. It was so cold, and he had no hat, no protection. Sean was a little bit away from his brother, sitting very still under the big elm. She watched him for a long while. The wind, playing high in the snow-laden branches, sometimes loosened a thin curtain of flakes, veiling their view of each other.