On Existence: A Treatise on Snow

by Carole Maso

In memory of Romulus Linney

Everyone that year talked of the pallor, complained about the ghastliness of the winter--its length, its severity. People felt compelled to write letters to editors, others formed snow groups, where they could speak freely of their despair. Only the children fled the fire pit and played.

Winters past were documented in the weather log of one Henry Darger. Snow day by day chronicled with care.

There was the kind of snow you hardly ever see: There was the dark snow The angel snow The snow globe snow The rabbit fur Snow dubbed the Evangelista, The Ghost Sonata, The White Rose.

From behind the snow wall, entire snow villages: Snow huts Snow towers Snow parapets

Poured over with devotion from his perch in the Weather Tower, Henry documented with love the properties of snow. The dream life of snow. Snow as music, snow as death knell. Apples and rose and snow, etc.

And the eight snowfall rate accumulations: Light snow snow showers moderate snow heavy snow falling rose-snow illuminated falling dustings squalls

Henry, What is a snow flurry?

Snow flurries are the lightest form of snow precipitation. They are often brief in duration and very light. It is classified as snow that meets the visibility requirements for light intensity snowfall.

Henry, why did God make us?

We don’t know but snow babies were made by several German firms: Hertwig, Bahr & Proeschild, and Hahn & Gebruder Heubach for instance. Snow babies are delightful, measure a few inches. They are made of bisque and covered with a snowy looking grout.

They are generally thought to have been manufactured from 1850 up to 1915, when the Great War interrupted the German export of these dolls permanently. Had her body ever been recovered we could have found one in Sophie’s pocket.

It was snowing as we know when Sophie was shot into the ditch. Sophie should like to lose herself in the crystal geometry of snow.  To bring it up close: prisms, hexagons, columns--conical, symmetrical, sectored, bulleted, plated--it could go a long way to calm--those shapes, in such a blizzard as this. Visibility is poor.

They appear fernlike, or like tiny, tiny trees through white smoke. Some snowfalls are made up almost entirely of these snowflakes—stellar dendrites. If she had the word it might help. Thin and light and making a pretty powder; she sinks to her knees. The stars are everywhere. And the snow roses—those rosette shapes falling large as planets onto her shoulders. A little boy with snow feet, snow mother do not succumb. She gets up. There is gun fire, but the mother is standing. The space before her radiant—made more so just before it is vacated.

Witness the shimmer at this last minute. Before the Germans raise their guns. This time she unfolds a scroll: the Snowflake Table--

The physicist Ukichiro Nakaya created the first systematic classification scheme of snowflakes. An extension of his table by Magono and Lee in 1966 includes 80 different snow crystal types.

And there, the stellar dendrites.

She might like to write the Children’s Guide to the Earth.

She might like to write a little history of Falling Things.

Or a treatise on the covered world: “Under the snow, the garden sleeps,” she might begin.

Or a Beginner’s Guide to the Universe: the world as she saw it--The snow babies in their white cups…

She loves everything that survives its disappearance.

Meanwhile inside Strindberg’s Dream Play, the Colossus Romulus slumbers.

Summer comes on—behold: that verdant, that impossible green, but even now in the mind’s hollow snow collects tonight. See Ava in her isolation traversing the white, the deep toward sleep. Snowpit and shear tests should be conducted frequently during your outing, especially if you are crossing several different slopes or types of terrain. Be sure to carry your avalanche beacon and that it is set to the transmit position. In an avalanche you only have thirty minutes tops to survive. Try to reach a hand through the snow if at all possible, or a foot or a pole so you might be seen.  Survival decreases with the time your body is buried.

Overnight the blizzard called Petra had arrived, bringing Germany to a standstill—high winds, white out conditions. Stranded on the Autobahn, the old woman falls into a pure white delirium. Swerving off an icy street a little family hits a tree and falls permanently asleep. Visibility diminished. Visibility is poor. “Petra,” the lover whispers in his white bed, and she fills his mouth with snow. What chance do we have?

Hitler had a scheme to defeat Great Britain by utilizing a fleet of snow machines. Tons of snow would fall from zeppelins and paralyze the country. The top people devised the snow plan but the British found the lab and killed the snow scientists and grabbed the plans. The snow zeppelins would have been the size of 3 football fields and able to cover 400 square feet. 20 were being commissioned. Do the math: England would be debilitated. An elite crew of schnee handlers were to man the zeppelins.

Artificial snow has a misshapen character.

Reading her old friend Baudrillard, but growing tired now, Ava puts down the book. The page whitens. It’s not so bad that her Aunt Sophie disappears she thinks, that she has come to terms with--but that she continues to disappear, on and on and on, that was intolerable. Stay gone, was that so much to ask.

She waves to her father at the snow door. What is it you want Father?  He writes the word APOPTOSIS above the frame in chalk. Apoptosis, if she remembers correctly is the process by which a cell is preprogrammed to die: apoptosis. Once the coveted missing link in the crossword.

Is it the real we worship, or its disappearance?

I should like to play the Fugitive—the one who flees the scene entirely. This, the melancholy after-effects of survival.

Snow drifts, collecting in the time crevasses. The rustle of crepe paper, crinoline can be heard.

“In the pageant I should like to play the snow part,” the little child says, stepping to the fore. His voice slices the theater space. All eyes look to the boy. At once the backstage bustle ceased: roles were being assigned for the Winter Solstice pageant. The director was impressed. If you are sure…

The boy is certain.

Other children step forward. “I should like to play either Santa Lucia, the candles, or the ice.”

I should like to be the one who fills the asylum with white flowers.

A column of snow bisque babies get up and stretch and toddle-march to the door.

“I should like to play the snow part,” the little boy says again stepping forward tugging at the woman who stands before the ditch. Yes of course, she says and pats his head.

He smiles and takes her hand now and recites his part into the cavern:

Snowfall, denser and denser, dove-colored as yesterday, snowfall as if even now you are sleeping.

White, stacked into distance. Above it, endless, The sleigh track of the lost.

I should like to play the ghost, in a fancy dress gown.

Below, hidden, presses up what so hurts the eyes, hill upon hill, invisible.

On each, fetched home into its today, and I slipped away into dumbness: wooden, a post.

There: a feeling, blown across by the ice wind attaching its dove--its snow— colored cloth as a flag.

Blanche comme le neige as they say.

And Sophie places a snow pack on her niece’s feverish head.

I should like to play the bride. She takes the script: what is left but bondage and darkness?

The children gather from every direction and stare into the firepit.

I should like to play the Arctic child, found on the top layer of ash. Cremated after its death. Did you know that a child’s bones were the earliest human remains found in the Arctic? The fragments were found in a fire pit. Only 20 percent of the child is left from 11, 000 years ago, but that is enough.

Sophie imagines the hidden. The thousands under the avalanche or the water or the ash. Still as always the children undeterred are making snow cakes drizzled with crystals and maple syrup and colored sugar.

For fun they liked to say “the chap from Saskatchewan” and laughter would emanate from the spot at which they lay in a pile having fallen over with glee. That’s some tongue-twister! A pile a mile high of snow-suited babies. Burrowing now into the snow pit.

And the boats are asleep under the snow and the river is frozen and stopped and snow is on top and the fish are asleep underneath.

And then all of a sudden, as if by chance, The Gulliver happened upon, ice encased—a snow child recognized him right away and she turned her face away. The great Romulus does not stir. Morphine-fueled. Seen from the window where icicles hang. The shutters half open. Snow up to the casements. Next to him a woman’s dark silhouette. Beside her a bowl of water or vapor or snow. The great Romulus in the bed--he does not stir. In her hand a last tablet, a lozenge, a salve.

When she moves to the window frame and looks out through ice I hide. It is not my time yet. Nor is it the time of the infant. Down the snow path I note where a small group of mourners has gathered in preparation—but it is not for me that they have come, nor for the child. I fall into sleep awhile. There’s a black dog with a white bark in the snow.

Snow falls. In the room the windows are buried and there is a bright gloom--in the room which has turned into a tomb. And against the gloom, the children and their games persist, starring, yes the chap from Saskatchewan as I fall into sleep.

And the benevolent Romulus is arranged with hands across the chest as is the custom. And taken out now at last in a toboggan. The snow so high. One hoped the transition to be smooth. The large shadow figure accompanies the sled, a consoling presence—hooded, she’s shepherding souls from this world to the next—from this white pasture to that one--yonder, farther than the eye… In a room I encountered her once.

Left there behind on the night table a few last items. From the dollhouse, long abandoned and inhabited by mice, a tiny German silver etched candlestick retrieved from the tiny parlor and a cracked cup, at the last moment as the snow fills everything up.

And now pressed up against an iron grate—fire. The great Romulus is burning. Everyone in the village can sense it. The mourners fan the fire and it grows. Fire on snow. Ceremoniously the undertaker George Fox tips his hat. Ordinarily it would be the day’s fifth fire he announces formally through snow, but The Romulus takes all day to be consumed. The children scream fleeing the fire pit to play while the Colossus burns.

Hey look: white roses and cinders and smoke--up above the trees—indicating a safe and painless passage. The Romulus strapped to the toboggan and the fur doll he cradled, all of it--gone to ash. “Leave your sleep,” the Arctic child whispers smiling into the place where the ear once was.

In the fixed glass eye of the rabbit, the one thing to survive the fire, one might perhaps have understood something of the strangeness of existence: the mystery of snow, the sorrow of smoke, the enigma of the Republic or the hidden meaning in the pageant. But having fallen asleep for a prolonged moment in the snow tomb I did not see the eye, or the Arctic child, or the benevolent Romulus who had been our monarch and had promised so much or the snow rabbit he had cradled or his beneficent smile on whose existence we had relied.

The snow made everything feel so far and now in a minute and definitively the Gulliver was wafted into the distance where he became a white speck. Come back Henry called, as if it were a game—he loved every aspect of the snow project. In the snow log he records a day of heartache, snow erase, fire snow, vacancy.

Casting of the pageant momentarily put on hold…

Carole Maso is the author of ten books including the novels The Art Lover, AVA, and Mother & Child; prose poems Aureole and Beauty is Convulsive; essays Break Every Rule; and a memoir, The Room Lit by Roses. She is professor of Literary Arts at Brown University.