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The Smell of Snow

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The dark valley. The high, sharp smell of snow before it fell each winter, metallic and bright even as the days got shorter, the nights longer, and her fear grew.

Now there was only grief. The memory of her once-husband's hand in hers, his face in the deep snow outside Brenner's window. His face in the deep snow on the road, in torchlight, smeared with blood.

There was no snow in America, in the place Maria came to rest. But there were horses, and tall grass, and a train that carried her west, west, west, farther than she had ever dreamed of going. And still the valley followed her. Its darkness lingered in her eyes, on her fingers when she touched her newborn son's dark hair in the summer sun. He was very quiet, her boy. A quiet like winter, like trees cracking under the weight of snow. Whump. Crunch of footsteps.

She bought a house, a plot of land. She taught herself piano, and how to read. She taught her son to read. Das Mädchen. Der Junge. Das Tal.

The slow quiet tick of the metronome still going beside the piano.

Tock, tock, tock.

“When I was your age,” she said to him, “I lived in Austria, in a village so small it was not on any map. It was so small it had no name.”

His head was at her hip, her elbow, her shoulder, and then, almost overnight, he was taller than her. His face was wide and sharp, his hair lighter than it might have been. Would he have looked different, in the cold high light of the valley? Would she have loved him less? The air in Texas was hot and dry, but she had not forgotten the taste of snow in her mouth, the light of fire in the deep forest.

“When I was just older than you,” she said to him, “I fell in love. That man was your Papa. But he was not your father.”

His eyes were blue, as clear and cold as frozen lake water. A vessel into which she poured her grief and anger. This was his legacy: a cross on a hilltop; a mother named Maria. He would have blood on his hands by the end, but Brenner would have no part of him.

Brenner would have no part of him.