Of Snow and White Paper
BY MANDY-SUZANNE WONG
an excerpt from The Box, a novel
At the beginning of the week before last, people in general began to understand that this snow we’re having is strange enough to be disturbing not in the sense that all snow is uncanny as anything falling from the sky is uncanny, showing that the seams of the world between Earth and sky, sky and space, solid and liquid, between the present and unimaginable past are riddled with imperceptible holes, but disturbing in its perfect regularity, which you must admit is perfectly irregular: there was the blizzard, yes and very well, to whatever extent that there are facts of life the occasional blizzard is one; but after the wind died the snow lived on, and even after the biggest snowdrifts, the really unmanageable hillocks, were cleared away or melted by the hot breath of the city so it was obvious to everyone that the blizzard was over, snow continued falling straight down as it is doing now, continuing at a pace that seems for all practical purposes to be nearly proportional to the rate at which, with sporadic assistance from the occasional overworked municipal snowplow, the warm fumes from cars and buses, the hot and befouling eructations of the underground-train system, and all the lights and all the people going in and out of buildings relieve the streets of prior snow, which has discolored and been squashed, with the result that we are all of us to this day shuffling about in nigh a foot of powder, which being ever new is always white and clean; and just as in a costume unnoticeable seams bind the odd-shaped fabric cutouts which together make the garment, so too it seems that some precarious tension holds together in suspense the city’s ingrained filth and the unremitting freshness apparent in this strange snow blown to us from god knows where on a wind that has forgotten it and disappeared.
I’ve never enjoyed snow, and unlike most people I take no pleasure in watching snowflakes fall to sidewalks even from behind a window at my home, although I like watching the rain and do enjoy the sound of rain blending with the river and pizzicatoing on empty streets, which may be why the snow, any snow but especially this haunting of a snowfall, this pale ghost of the blizzard that hangs around in neither determination nor indifference, makes me feel uneasy: snowflakes even when plummeting collide soundless with the ground, are subject to gravity but never to the noise which, with gracelessness of varying degrees, gravity summons upon impact from everything it touches excepting the ashes of combusted things and the heat our city belches from its countless pipes and chimneys to the farthest reaches of the world; and on insomniac occasions when I find myself looking through dawn’s half-light at tumbling snow, should I drop a spoon for instance on the dead-tree surface of a table I must convince myself that their meeting produced a clatter as I must convince myself that besides the fire and refrigerator the rest of the house is mute and not about to produce any skittering noises no matter how I strain to listen in nervous apprehension; but you mustn’t think I’m here because there’s any comfort to be taken from the crunch of my own feet against snow-covered cement, I for one have had enough of ferrying snowdrifts on the brim of my hat, folds of my coat, crooks of my shoulders scrunched against the cold, and even on the day in question, last week or thereabouts, I was already fed up, for a blizzard followed by fourteen days of windless snow is quite enough, and now that three days more have piled on top of the fourteen, it is seventeen days of uninterrupted snowfall that we’ve had to endure, not counting the blizzard, seventeen days of nonstop snow, which you’ll admit is quite beyond what anybody who is not a walrus or some sort of yak should ever have to put up with; had I not had some obligation, which I no longer recall, I would just as soon have not quit my carpeted, blanketed house that day or anytime since the onset of the blizzard, and yet here you find me in this so-called café, here indeed you would’ve found me had you sought me yesterday or on any afternoon since the strange one of which I’m apparently about to give you an accounting even though I’m hardly the sort of person to give accountings except when they cannot be prevented as it seems this one cannot, just as it seems the events of that uncommon afternoon draw me back to this place day after day, despite myself and the serene, relentless snow, in a way that I can neither resist nor explain.
My house isn’t even in this neighborhood, I came this way that afternoon because as I made for wherever I was going I was bent on keeping to unpopular streets that hold no attraction for the grimy buses which, once their wheels have masticated the fallen snow, never neglect to spray me with it, also because I’ve finally learned the only lesson that a lifetime in this city has to offer, to wit that if I am to survive a minute longer in this place I must become a proper misanthrope, there is nothing else for it; thus I turned onto the street where we are now, which the snow prevents you from seeing through the window, this dark and crooked lane wriggling between art galleries and so-called cafés as they devour one another in an attempt to make ends meet so that every establishment within five miles of here is a purveyor of questionable art and dubious coffee, the snow providing the advantage of obliging everyone to shut their windows, freeing the air of the canned music which would otherwise fly out of every hovel to do battle in the street and instead swaddling the sidewalk in an eerie sense of fragile solitude, a phantasmagorical impression enhanced by the silence of the cars parked along the curb, the dearth of moving vehicles, and the absence of pedestrians save myself and a man in a long coat and fedora: he was ahead of me on the same side of the street, moving in the same direction, some appointment bestirring him to hurry, when suddenly he stopped, looked at something in the distance, roused himself and rushed onward with purpose before stopping in his tracks as if the snow floating around us had become an impenetrable wall in front of him; he went on again and stopped again, his elbows bent perhaps so he could wring his hands, which he dropped when he went on, and then he stopped and seemed to listen, forming fists, and I thought he’d stamp his foot; his quivering posture gave the impression of an interior a-blizzard with what they call “snow” on television when the television cannot receive any signals and as such cannot communicate anything except a frightening suspension of communication on the part of those who presume to decide for everybody what things are worth, and it seemed to me that the swirling absence of meaning which from time to time envelops everything was suddenly obvious to him and too much for him and in consequence he didn’t know what to do with himself, but his stop-and-starting made the lane uncomfortable to walk along, which further seemed to agitate him, so when he started up again it was with violence, “Bah!,” and a throwing-up of hands; he plowed on as if so determined to end his misery that the noise of his progress drowned out the landing of a thing dislodged from his pocket when the throwing-up of hands disturbed his coat, and in retrospect sometimes it seems that this was his intention, that dislodging and drowning were theatrics he performed for the benefit of his conscience as the thing tumbled away from him, but at the time bemused by the irrational silence of the snow I was uncertain I’d heard anything at all, let alone the gentle landing of a small thing, and if I’d seen anything tumble from his pocket then it was as small and white as the multitude of small white tumblers all around us, and really I’d no wish to become involved with this unstable person and his renegade possessions if such there were, but I dreaded the possibility that my senses had deceived me, that my mind was as unsound as the preposterous atmosphere seemed to demand, that I was somehow infected with the absurdity of this taut symmetry between snow and city, and I hesitated while the man went zigzagging down the lane, the decision hemming me in like a hurtling mob, of whether to continue on and discover that he’d dropped a thing or that he hadn’t, leading in either case to an encounter with his troubled mind or my own, or to turn back with no purpose except to leave this crooked lane and seek a different one.
Whether it was curiosity or dread that moved me I no longer know, but so that you will attempt to finagle from me not a word more than I shall offer, my concession in this respect being motivated by some begrudging consideration because if more people wondered as you do, asked themselves what a particular anthropogenic and to all appearances inanimate thing might get up to over and above what is conceivable to Homo sapiens, then this planet would not now seem a hostile alien one, you must understand three circumstances which told against my doing anything besides continuing on my way, circumstances which told loudly against my engaging some strange object that through the carelessness or otherwise of some human had littered this crooked lane: first is the circumstance that when last I went out of my way, thirteen or fifteen years ago in the dead of night, to investigate a fallen object in the street, my investigation revealed the object to be a young woman in such a condition that could never have resulted from a mere dispute with gravity, a state so pulverized and bloody it must have driven her out of her mind, closed her to anything outside her casket of pain and terror, and for her perfect ignorance of my existence whilst I summoned and waited for the ambulance and forever after I do not blame her in the least, in fact whoever she may be and whether or not she survived her injuries I do not know, since it was obvious she had been brutally set upon by some human or humans of the most rancorous rapacious kind, and the idea that it is possible for such people to exist disgusted me beyond recovery, lodged in me an incurable anthrophobia; second is the circumstance that I retired a month ago from the human resources department of the local branch of a multinational manufacturer of useful things’ vital inner bits and in recent times of “global climate solutions” about which nobody knows anything except that they are COZY, CLEAN, AND COOL as they’ve plastered on the walls in all the train stations, the subject of cozy geoconstructivist cleansing and computer-controlled cooling being the globe itself as though the very world were but a useful thing requiring only the proper bits to make it go the way the manufacturer wants it even as its human resources couldn’t care less, their priorities being one-upmanship and various forms of insurance, as though the global ecosystem’s basic survival, whence it’s assumed Homo sapiens’ immortality shall follow, could be manufactured as a commodity of determinable market value at which, in this epitome of blackmail, failing to buy in would constitute condoning the uncozy, filthy incineration of biological life; bringing me to the third circumstance which ought to have precluded the occurrence on the sidewalk outside this so-called café, specifically that in forty years’ professional servitude, having sacrificed many a hankie to janitors in disastrous states of nervous collapse, I cannot abide littering, I cannot observe littering without wanting to burst into tears of rage, and because many litterers litter in paper or plastic, the presence of such items in states of abandonment and emptiness is categorically intolerable to me even though I am myself nothing but an empty animal who has resolutely abdicated from bothering about other duplicitous animals or this doomed Earth: I’ve retired from sympathy and community, I have done, and in consequence I’ve become an inveterate mumbler filling my blissful solitude with unwanted mumble, the bitter remnants of my vital forces dribbling from me in a slow leak, which astonished me on that singular afternoon by stopping itself up.
You’d think such a being as I, having witnessed what appeared to be a paper thing falling litterlike into the snow from the pocket of some human’s coat, would in accordance with my character and circumstances have run away and left the thing where it had fallen; only that thing, a paper thing, white paper in the snow, exerted counterforces which I cannot define but which proved stronger than history and all my instincts: the little white box fit in the palm of my hand with perhaps a whisper of a rattle when it moved, was of a size that could’ve accommodated cigarettes or playing cards, a wallet or slim wad of cash, yet was absolutely self-contained lacking the door or flap of the cigarette or playing-card carton, but then again it was the opposite of self-contained being all-over seams, by which I mean it was constructed of paper strips entangled as if haphazardly, shooting out as if dynamically between one another and diving under one another in all directions; but so tight a weave it was that no strip seemed to have an end, delicate as they were the strips held fast to one another with a tension that resulted in an impenetrable rectangle, for neither fingernail nor toothpick nor so much as a breath could’ve wriggled underneath those seams and not a one would yield to pulling or prying, of that I was certain when I turned over the curio in my mittens, a curiosity of kinetic rectangular perfection, a hypnotizing snarl of gaps with all the vulnerability of paper in the snow, and the devil of it was it belonged to someone else, the nervous man who’d dropped it before my very eyes, which fact alone made it a complicated, daunting thing: I might’ve kept it for myself, taken it off somewhere although this notion did not appeal, for there was something about the object which was as repellent to me as it was attractive, I might’ve pretended I hadn’t seen it and dropped it back onto the sidewalk, let someone else chance upon it or crush it, or I might’ve tossed it in a dumpster or beneath a car or done any number of things more characteristic of this city and myself than hurrying after the stranger in the dated hat with the strange object in my hand; but the infernal snow decided it, the snow kept on implacably just as it’s doing now, and although it’s so far failed to smother the city completely the small white paper box would have been devoured and the fellow who had dropped it would’ve never found it again and even if he did it would’ve been soaked through or squashed, no longer the closely woven secret that the man had carried with him but a thing exposed, so yes I followed him on account of the weather and the frangibility of paper, and he was easily overtaken for he made no more than sporadic progress, stopping now and then to torment himself; he was in the throes of just such an anguished hesitation when I appeared at his elbow and as he looked at me I felt rather like a ghost, so startled were the eyes between the brim of his gray hat and his voluminous gray muffler, a reaction I understood wholeheartedly because, and I mean no personal offense, when a stranger appears at one’s elbow in this city it is rarely a friendly thing, which is why I didn’t speak a word but silently proffered the object that had fallen from his coat; and in his hesitation I saw him wish for the ability to pretend he’d never seen the little box in his life but, lacking the wherewithal for a feint of that sort, he made an effort to gather himself, thanked me earnestly, and with too much relief plucked the box from my mitten with careful fingers.
I meant to take my leave before the stranger could see my feelings stricken, yes, to my own horror, by his stricken look, the look of someone who is lost and unable to forget it, for I desired no resonance, no pity for this man to crowd my crowded thoughts, but when he said, “Were you able to look inside?” the forlornness of the castaway was in his voice wavering between dread and eagerness, and his question presuming to accuse me of presumption deserved no answer except the scowl I threw over my shoulder as I went on my way; yet he came after me, “Forgive me” falling from his lips in a voice which somehow penetrated even though it was more than two parts whispering, not conspiratorial but with a seemingly natural softness and sad smile as he said, “Most people would’ve tried to open it I think,” and then he went on, this stranger whose dress bespoke a man accustomed to comfort without conflict: in conflicted tones he said, “Do you have a little time?” and in the pause born of the suspicious temperament which this city breeds in everyone, our wariness was as if embodied in the cold glittering curtain flickering between us on that cloud-shadowed day; “I need a moment out of the snow,” he said, “to think a little, and I’m much obliged to you, you see, this,” he said, “this”—and fell silent, holding aloft the box between his thumb and finger with a frown as if he contemplated giving me the thing even though or because we were strangers to each other and simultaneously as if he waited, waited intently for the box itself, woven closed, to express whether or not it should be given, and of course I knew I wouldn’t accept it should it be offered, indeed I thought the man should put it back in his pocket, but it wasn’t my place to say so and in any case the box wasn’t what he offered, he offered himself, a delay of my errand, and an offering to which I knew I wouldn’t agree and yet I did agree, so here we are: a moment, however drawn out, in this slouching lane, the pair of us huddling clumsily at this very table in this so-called café, making strangers’ talk while nursing expensive sludge, and think of me what you will you would be right if you suspected I came with him to this place, the interior of which I’d never set eyes upon before, not because of my anomalous pity for him but because of his damnable box, that bit of self-enclosed and breakable white paper.
You’ll observe that like the crooked lane in the crooked city which sprung it like a wart this café is all awkward angles and odd corners, you’ll notice that the niche where our tottering table has been wedged, a triangular corner like a seam that is slowly being forced apart, is dark and uninviting and too narrow to accommodate the measliest repast at the stingiest degree of comfort, and yet that fellow made for precisely this murky recess and sat where I am now, calling for warm drinks, peeling away his coat to reveal a suit of the same gray, doffing the fedora to reveal a knit cap, also gray; he then proceeded by gentle brushing to remove errant snowflakes from the box, which seemed none the worse for it, he placed the box here in the apex of the corner as though it would function as a referee or chairperson, and if it was the box that had gathered us and stuffed us in this corner then it was also the box that imposed the straining silence between us, two jaded metropolitans with nothing else in common except the steam rising from the cups into which we glowered, each aware that the other had resolved, wretchedly it’s true, straining almost to the point of breaking out in sweat, not to look at the box which was the reason for everything, each sensing that the other would rather swallow muddy snow masticated by the filthy wheels of grimy buses than be the first to mention white paper; and indeed it was the box that strained the silence to its breaking point, where at last with furrowed brow, a gaze turning inward and distant, and much pondering and prodding of words before daring to let them loose, the stranger began to speak.