‘Winter Letter’, by Lydia Davis

A new short story for the holidays from the award-winning writer

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Dear Kids,

I’ll try not to let this go on forever, because Dad gets restless if I’m busy at something for too long. So I’ll just tell you some of what we’ve been up to.

It has been really cold, with a lot of snow, so we’ve been indoors a lot. We’re trying to eat healthy, and our best new discovery is, guess what . . . radishes! Dad brings them home from the store every week. They come in all different colors, and I even cook the radish greens. Another thing is, I’m making my own applesauce now. We were buying it in jars, but then one day I read the label and what do you think I discovered? The apples are grown clear up in Canada, and then they’re shipped to California, the applesauce is made in Santa Cruz, California, and then it’s shipped back east. And here we are right in the middle of apple country! So now I make my own.

Then I started reading the labels of all the food we get. Can you believe the vegetable bouillon cubes I like so much come from Switzerland! And the breadcrumbs Dad likes best are made in Japan. Breadcrumbs! — that’s just plain embarrassing.

So I’m making more of our food from scratch. I’m also sitting in a different chair at the kitchen table. I had to move once because one of the cats was on my chair, and I discovered that I liked looking at the trees out the window instead of at the shelves of dishes. So we’re going to try that.

I know this isn’t too fascinating, but it’s our life.

A note about the wild creatures here — inside the house! There are so many ladybugs in the kitchen. One will drop down on to the counter. I never know if it’s the same one. I like to watch what they do, how they walk around on their little legs. I looked them up in our bug book, and it said they only eat aphids, but that’s not true. I’ve tried them on marmalade, cat food, lettuce, and celery. They like them all. I like to watch the way they turn over, when they end up on their back. First they wave their legs in the air and try to catch hold of something, and when that doesn’t work, they open their wings out to the sides and kind of flip themselves over.

I try to go outdoors every day for at least a little while, no matter how cold it is. It’s a little boring in the yard, but I walk all the way around it a couple of times. I study the animal tracks in the snow. Usually all I see are rabbit tracks, but once I saw possum tracks going along by the barn. At least I thought they might be possum, and when I got inside and looked them up, I was right. Their little toes point out in all directions like stars.

I wanted to collect some birds’ nests, which you can find more easily in winter, but your Dad said they might smell, or carry a disease, like avian flu.

We do have our frustrations. Dad still can’t find that nice little wine-colored cloth bag you gave him for Christmas, his favorite, which he always took to get the mail. I tell him there are plenty of others, but he wants that one. And the cats — sometimes we find a puddle on the floor in the morning, or some spit-up, or they’ve unrolled the toilet paper on to the floor.

We’re together all day long, which can be hard. We disagree about things, like which kitty litter to use, or when to have dinner. Sometimes I try to work on our relationship — ie, be nicer — but your Dad is always more or less the same, winter or summer, nice except when he’s in a bad mood. Then he’ll accuse me of things, like, Did I try to move the shower head?

One thing I’m looking forward to is an outing we’re going on in a few days, to the local library. Your dad is always pretty cheerful when we’re out of the house, though it’s true that the farther away we go, the more cheerful he gets, and we’re not going that far.

Speaking of outings, you wanted to hear more about our trip to the Texas hill country back in October. I’ll tell you now, before I forget completely. You knew we went, and that we got a lot of rain while we were there, but I didn’t tell you the whole story.

As you know, we went down there to spend a couple of days looking at the vegetation and to see my friend Bea and her new house and her dog (and her husband). Well, the trip down was okay. We shared a sandwich and some chips on the airplane, then we both looked at our airplane magazines — Dad likes to open up the fold-out map and find where we are — and then Dad did his sudoku puzzles while I read my Michael Crichton book (and fell asleep, Dad told me later, sitting bolt upright with my finger keeping my place in the book!).

Bea picked us up at the airport and drove us right to her house. Our plan was to spend the first evening with her, then stay at the inn the next day, because Bea was busy. Then we would spend the following day with Bea again. It didn’t work out that way.


We had fun looking through Bea’s house and playing with her cute little dog Henry. Henry has a trick where Bea wraps his toy tight in a towel and tosses it on the floor and Henry unwraps the towel and finds the toy. Their house is in a nice neighborhood and cost them a lot of money, she said, because everybody is moving to Austin now. They had to take out two mortgages. I can imagine. We hadn’t met her husband before, and we sat in their living room and talked to him for a while. He seemed nice. He has a desk where he works standing up! Then Bea and I went out to eat at a Japanese restaurant. Your Dad and her husband had started talking about something interesting, so they decided just to stay home and have a couple of beers and make themselves a sandwich (American-style!). At the Japanese restaurant, the waiters bring out all these courses which the chef chooses for you, in tiny portions. Bea’s eating this kind of food now. It certainly was interesting.

Then Bea drove us out to the inn, which she had trouble finding in the dark — and boy, was it dark. The inn is at the end of a long, winding road through ranch land. We were ready for bed by then. But we didn’t sleep all that well because the bed was very, very soft, with one of those pillow-top inserts under the bottom sheet, and also the quilt was very heavy. I get the feeling people in Texas use air conditioning all the time, no matter what the temperature is outside, so then they have to sleep under all this heavy bedding.

Well, we like to sleep on a firm mattress with no quilt and the window open. So the next morning I completely remade the bed. Dad couldn’t watch — you know how he hates it when I get fanatical. So he went for a little walk around the place. When I was done, he took me out and showed me what he had discovered — a huge vegetable garden they have there, next to the driveway. I was impressed.

The inn is really nice. It consists of a few two-storied wooden buildings with open balconies front and back. (Our room was on the second floor.) It’s up on top of a hill with a lot of acreage around it — something like 80 acres, which of course isn’t considered a lot in Texas. We learned while we were there that even 4,000 acres wasn’t considered much in Texas in the old days. But times have changed.

We knew they gave tours of the ranch, and we had signed up for one, since this was our day by ourselves. It’s really a tour of the hill country itself — the plants and animals, etc. It takes two hours. What it is, is they take you in a jeep, very slowly, around the different parts of the ranch, some distance away from the main buildings. Every now and then they stop the jeep so you can get out and stretch your legs and look at things a little more closely. They tell you whatever you want to know, but they don’t talk too much, which is nice. (I asked a lot of questions, of course.) I sat up front with the driver, who was actually the owner of the place, and Dad sat in the back seat with a couple of the other guests as well as a young employee of the inn who came along to open the gates. Some of the ground we drove over was pretty bumpy and we had to hold on tight not to get knocked around — quite an experience, with a lot of jiggling!

We set off at ten. First we drove down by the creek to look at where the flooding was last spring — it really took out a lot of trees. There was a dead tree lying on its side there, and it was full of buzzards. The driver (owner), Pete, said that before the flood, the birds used to perch up in these same trees, when they (the trees) were alive and standing up. We got out and walked down toward the water. The birds flew up and circled overhead for a while, then landed in another tree farther away. There were two kinds of buzzards, almost the same, but when they’re in the air you can see a different pattern on their wings. Pete told us more about the flood and the river itself, and then we got back in the jeep and went on.

We drove through areas where goats and cattle were grazing, and horses. We had to keep stopping so this young man, Jeffrey or Jeremy, could open the gates and close them behind us. He was very nice, and energetic. The main vegetation there was live oak trees and lots and lots of prickly pear cactus, which is an odd combination, I think.

We stopped again high up, at a lookout platform with a view down to the river. There was a Texas flag flying from the railing — a little the worse for wear, I have to say. Then we stopped at the very highest point of the property, where they had built a little cabin you could rent for a weekend — if you didn’t mind having no electricity and using an outhouse!

Actually, that got me started talking to Pete about composting toilets. I’ve actually used one. They are so quiet, and they don’t smell at all. I thought the inn should install some, especially given that drought and water shortages might become a problem. But Pete didn’t seem very interested, and I knew that although your Dad was probably smiling politely, there in the back seat, he wasn’t enjoying this conversation. Then he interrupted me to ask Pete a question about the design of the Texas flag. I got the message and stopping talking about toilets.

Towards the end of the tour, we were lucky enough to see a roadrunner cross the track right in front of us, almost under the jeep. Actually, I was the only one who saw it (besides the driver). I’ve never seen one before. They’re dark brown, and not very big, with long straight tails sticking out in back of them. I looked them up later — there was a bird book in our room — and it’s really true that they don’t fly, they only run. We also saw a whole cloud of little yellow butterflies once, in front of us, or they could have been white. They were feeding on coyote dung, Pete said. We got back to the inn around noon.

The rest of the day was more relaxing. After lunch we explored the inn itself — they have a little library with some shelves of military history that interested Dad — and then we looked at the brochures and other things in our room. Then we lay down and read for a while and napped. Dinner was great — the place has the best restaurant for miles around, apparently — and after dinner we talked to some of the other guests out on the back porch. They were pretty friendly. We had thought there would be people from all over the country visiting the Texas hill country, but most of these people seemed to be from Houston. They really do have a different accent down in Texas. Instead of “sleep” they say “slape”. Instead of “green” they say “grane”. Dad made friends with a man from Houston who’s also interested in military history. We went to bed early — it had already been a pretty active couple of days!

Our plan with Bea was for her to pick us up after breakfast the next day (her husband was busy, she said). She was going to take us to see the one tourist attraction near here, in the closest town, and that’s the house Katherine Anne Porter used to live in. Actually, she didn’t live in it very long, and it belonged to her grandmother. But she’s the famous person around here — our room at the inn was even called the Porter Room.

But — guess what? Nature had other ideas. In the middle of the night we were woken up by a loud thunderstorm. In fact it was a really violent storm, with thunder and lightning and rain pounding on the balcony outside our door. The balcony is wide open to the elements. Out our window, we could see the whole sky with the flashes of lightning. The rain went on and on.

Then, the next morning, at eight o’clock, we got a call from the front desk. They said there was a tornado warning, and all the guests were asked to come downstairs to the kitchen. We were still in our pajamas. They said there was a danger of a tornado for the next half hour, then it would be over. So I didn’t think we should take the time to get dressed. Your Dad didn’t care as much about the tornado as about appearing in his pajamas, so he put on some clothes, but I went out in the terrycloth robe provided by the inn. The rain was coming at us sideways, on the balcony, against the side of the building, and the wooden floor of the balcony was slippery, and so were the steps, so we had quite a time even getting down there without falling. I had brought along my little folding umbrella from Paris, but the wind was blowing so hard I didn’t put it up.

Of course I was the only one in a bathrobe. And I make a pretty large object in a white terrycloth robe, especially in a fairly small room, which the breakfast room was. But you know me — I’m at an age where I just don’t get embarrassed by things like that. The room was cheerful, no one seemed afraid of the tornado, though of course everyone was talking about the weather, and people were coming in soaking wet and laughing, carrying towels. We helped ourselves to mugs of coffee from the urn and sat down and waited for the warning to be over. We chatted a little with some of the other guests. We didn’t really expect a tornado, and we didn’t get one.

But the rain just went on and on, and we were told later, after breakfast, that it had rained so hard during the night that the water was rising in a lot of the creeks and rivers around us, and even covering some of the roads. Then I have to say we got a little nervous, though the inn is on high ground. A young couple who were supposed to leave that day decided to chance it, and we heard them talking about which way to try and get out.

Then we got news that the roads were completely flooded and in fact the whole town had shut down. Everyone was supposed to stay in their houses. We talked to Bea on my phone and canceled our plans with her.

I’m not sure your Dad was sorry. I think he was happier staying at the inn, which was really pleasant and had great food and some good books, than going touring around with a pair of women who might talk his ears off. I wasn’t all that interested, myself, but I wanted to see Bea. Anyway, though your Dad and I are such readers, we haven’t read anything by Katherine Anne Porter, though we know the name of her most famous book — The Ship of Fools. Which I bet you two don’t, being too young — have you ever even heard of it? In fact, there was a copy of it on the mantlepiece in our room. (We had our own fireplace, and, if you can believe it, the fireplace went right through to the bathroom, so you could have a fire in there, too, if you wanted.) I opened it and looked at the beginning and saw there was a “cast of characters” that went on for three pages! Right away I knew I’d never read that novel. Still, I like old houses and I always enjoy taking a tour of a historic place. And I was sorry I wouldn’t get to spend some more time with Bea. That was one of the reasons we came down. We were flying home the next day. So that first evening with Bea and her husband and her little dog Henry was it.


Well, later on, after lunch, we had a clear spell. The clouds seemed to break up a little. The sky was still stormy looking, but brighter. After we played cards for a while, your Dad lay down to read a book he had picked out of the library downstairs, about Julius Caesar, and I decided to go for a walk. Here was my big adventure! I always like going out on my own for a while, when we’re travelling. I walk more slowly than your Dad. He likes to get where he’s going. I like to take my time and look at everything a lot longer than he does. Anyway, he said he had had enough of a walk already, going out to see the vegetable garden.

I thought I’d head for the river. It’s called Onion Creek. The inn is named after it — The Inn at Onion Creek. It’s quite far down below where the inn is — you could see part of it through the trees from the back balcony on the second floor. I had gone out there earlier in the day and looked at it through the birdwatching binoculars they had in the room. I thought I saw logs and other debris being carried downstream. I thought from the dramatic reports that morning that maybe I’d see a shed or an animal floating down, but I didn’t.

First I went and got a laminated folding map from the office. They also had walking sticks in a barrel by the path, near the back porch. So I took a stick. I had walking shoes on, but they’re really for city walking, so they turned out not to be terribly good on this path, which was very rocky and still wet from the rain — slippery and muddy. The laminated map showed the different trails and also had numbers that matched numbers next to trees and shrubs along the path identifying different plants and giving information about them, such as what the Native Americans used them for. This was interesting, though I couldn’t always find the numbers and I got a little tired trying to remember the facts about each plant. It just seemed that some part of every plant was used by the Native Americans for medicinal purposes.

© Simon Pemberton

Anyway, I had the strangest experience almost right away, when I had been walking only about ten minutes. I had passed a few different numbers and stopped to read about the plants. Then the path started sloping down a little, and I came to a sort of crossroads, where another path crossed my path. I stopped to look for it on the map. On the map it was yellow. Then I looked up and to the left, along the other path, and I was very startled to see a kind of gray face looking at me. It wasn’t very high up off the ground, and I realized after a second that it was the face of a raccoon. He was about twenty feet away, sitting or squatting straight up facing me. The face just sort of floated there above the leaves — I couldn’t see the rest of his body because of a curve in the path (his path).

After I saw him, I didn’t move. He stayed still, too. Then he went back down on all fours and very calmly went into the long grass on one side of his path, with his nose to the ground, and then came out again and nosed a little in the grass on the other side of his path. Then he returned to his path and started coming toward me. His head was down and he was sniffing and nosing along the path as he came, paying no attention to me. I wondered if he knew I was there. He kept coming toward me with a sort of waddling motion. Now I was just a little frightened. I had never had a wild animal come walking toward me before. He didn’t seem rabid, but I remembered hearing something about that — if wild animals came near you in daylight they might be rabid.

I thought surely he must smell me. Then he straightened up again, squatting on his hind legs, and he did seem to be sniffing the air. His face was directed toward me and his nose was up. I thought now he would get alarmed and turn and run. But he just put his nose back down to the path and came waddling on forward, closer and closer, looking at the ground. He went off into the grass a couple more times, sniffed around and pawed the ground, then came out again. Finally, he was only a few feet away — I could almost touch him. Now I really was afraid. I thought that at any moment he would see that I was there, and then he might leap right at me and bite me. But I still didn’t move — I wanted to see what would happen. I could see his face clearly. One of his eyes was milky white. Then I thought maybe he had a cataract in it, and couldn’t see out of it. In fact, maybe he couldn’t see well at all. Maybe he was old, though he looked pretty healthy. His fur was a little matted down in places. Maybe he was old and couldn’t see or smell very well.

He didn’t seem to know I was there. He stopped and stood still on his four paws, but he didn’t look in my direction. Then he went on across my path, and on to the other side of his path, and finally in among the shrubbery, and disappeared. I stayed there another minute, but he didn’t reappear.

What was most strange about this experience was that I felt invisible, or more than that — I felt as though I weren’t there at all. I don’t know how to describe it. Surely, if a wild animal could walk past right in front of you and not notice you at all, you weren’t really there.

When I talked to some people about it later, they said, Well, maybe he was used to people because of the inn. But I don’t think animals just ignore you like that. They run away or they attack you or they beg for food. Don’t you think so? I could have been a tree.

Well, after that, I was nervous. I thought I might meet up with another wild animal, like a coyote. The ranch owner, Pete, had said there were no bears around, but there were lots of coyotes. He kept Great Pyrenees dogs in the pastures with his goats because of the coyotes. I decided to go on with my walk anyway. After all, even though I had had a little adventure, I hadn’t gotten very far — I could still see the inn behind me.

I followed the path to a bench and a view of the creek not too far below. The water was pretty high, and a light brown color, but, strangely, now it was flowing in the opposite direction. Of course that couldn’t have been true. I must have got it wrong that morning, even though I had looked carefully through the binoculars. I kept on walking. Now the path sloped down toward the water. But the clouds had gathered again, and they were darker, and a few raindrops began to fall. The path got steeper and steeper, and my city shoes were slipping and sliding — I was glad I had taken the walking stick. But I was afraid that if I went all the way down to the creek, I would have a terrible time getting back up. I was also afraid the rain would come down really hard again. And the water might rise so fast that I would be pulled in and swept away.


So when I came to another path that led back up to the inn — it was red on the map — I took it. I hadn’t had much of a walk, but I felt immediately better heading back to safety. And it did start raining hard again just then. I was pretty wet by the time I got near the inn.

On the back porch, the manager was showing a new guest the path and the barrel of walking sticks. She was telling her about the laminated maps. The guest was smiling, and she smiled at me, too, as I came up to the porch. But I’m not sure I was a very good advertisement for the inn, with my wet clothes and muddy shoes, struggling along through the rain and probably still looking a little frightened.

I won’t bore you with the rest — how I asked for a rag to clean my shoes and they brought me a huge old towel, how awkward it was to clean off the mud with that old towel at a hose by the garden shed, balancing on one foot, etc. (And it was still raining.) But when some of the mud was off, I went back up to the room and cleaned the shoes some more in the bathroom, and then told Dad about my adventure with the raccoon, though I don’t think he really understood how strange it was. He was in the middle of something interesting in his book and wanted to get back to his reading.

So, anyway, that was more or less it — our only real vacation in a while. The next morning, of course, was bright and sunny. It would have been perfect weather for meeting Bea and touring the Katherine Anne Porter house. But off we went to the airport — the same nice young man drove us who had opened all those gates on the tour — and we were early enough so I could pick up some Texas-themed items in the gift shop, mainly Christmas presents for my book club. We did almost the same things on the flight back as on the flight down — sandwich, chips, Michael Crichton, nap — except that your Dad, instead of doing sudoku, sat and thought about Julius Caesar. I could tell, because now and then he’d share some fact with me, like that Caesar’s army could build a bridge across a river in one day, or that if an enemy was hiding in a forest they would cut down the whole forest (!), or that they mainly ate bread. We like flying, I have to say.

So we had fun, though it was kind of a strange trip, all in all. We had thought we wouldn’t like Texas, for all the reasons you can guess. But that hill country is beautiful. And the people were nice. After we were back a few days, Bea sent us a bag of pecans from the tree in Katherine Anne Porter’s yard! They taste good, though they’re hard to get out of the shell.

Just a couple of last things — one is about that outing we have planned. It’s not as far away as Texas! Dad isn’t enthusiastic, but he’s being a good sport about it. What it is, they’re having an Apron Exhibit at the library. It’s this one woman’s collection of colorful old aprons, and they have invited people to bring their own apron to display, too. So I may look in a couple of drawers and see what I have, though most of mine are stained. They’re also going to teach an apron making class, but I don’t really want to make an apron.

Another thing I saw in our local paper is a series of classes on foot massage. It turns out, they say — which I didn’t know — that the soles of our feet have a map of our entire body. Each part of our foot corresponds to a different part of our body. The article says the woman teaches you how to knead, rub, rock, and shake your feet. Of course your dad wouldn’t want anyone showing him how to rub and shake his feet, but I’m interested.

Well, you wanted a long letter, handwritten like in the old days, and you got it. How is your life in the city?? We miss you. You haven’t visited in a while.

So, we’ve been cooped up inside all day, it’s not too cold, and we need to get out and stretch our legs. I think we’ll probably take this letter down to the post office and also see if they have any new stamps. Sometimes we buy a couple of sheets of stamps that we like. Then, back at home, we have a cup of tea and turn over the sheets and read the little descriptions on the sticky side of the stamps — they’re very informative.

Love to you both, and from Dad,

Mother

Illustrations by Simon Pemberton

Photograph: Theo Cote

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