March 4, 2019KR BlogNewsletter

Why We Chose It

Snow Line,” by Elizabeth Brinsfield, appears in the Mar/Apr 2019 issue of the Kenyon Review.

Elizabeth Brinsfield’s “Snow Line” is a quiet storm of a story. Exquisitely written, it opens ominously (“We knew our neighbor would come back”) and in the first short section there is violence: the neighbor hits his girlfriend and the police are called, but they fail to catch him as he flees into the mountains. Yet the rest of the narrative—with the neighbor furtively going back and forth to his cabin, avoiding the police; the narrator watching for signs of him across the aspen grove shadowing their homes; the inevitable encounter between the two—has a hushed quality, with tension building imperceptibly.

The story is set in a Colorado ghost town in the winter. “For at least two, sometimes three seasons, the mountains wore snow like clothing, and the clothing was seamless, so that rooftops touched drifts, branches drew faint lines in white sky, and snow fell in sheets like the ones on my bed.” The unnamed narrator is in love with her husband; they have a young son and a baby on the way. They lead simple lives with clearly defined roles. The husband, Sully, who has a good job, is “the snow mover and wood cutter, the builder and fire starter,” while the narrator-wife “was in the cabin with the babies [the son, the child yet to be born], nursing and fixing food, washing countless loads of laundry.” They live in the abandoned town because it’s beautiful, and on the winter weekends they ski.

The first big storm of the season comes when Sully is out of town for work. The narrator’s son develops a rash, chicken pox, and she drives him to the hospital through “the kind of storm I hoped to watch and not face.” They’re sent home, and back at the cabin, as she brings in wood, bathes her sick son, and worries about whether the unborn child will contract the disease, she ponders her relationship with Sully. When he phones, she tells him that she needs him. But the storm has covered a vast region, and he says he won’t be able to return for at least four days. “I hung up the phone, not on Sully, but after a lull in the conversation.”

Brooding on her loneliness and feelings of abandonment, preoccupied by the tasks of single-handedly tending to a sick child, coping with added anxieties when the power goes out, she is nevertheless aware of the neighbor prowling outside. There is tremendous skill at work in “Snow Line,” which pairs the tension of the danger outside—the violent neighbor—with the tension within the narrator’s marriage. For the marriage is not as smooth as the narrator initially makes it out to be. “No matter how fuzzy I might want to make the picture, the lens would naturally adjust.”

Inevitably, the hungry, freezing neighbor comes to the narrator’s cabin—her son blithely lets him in. The ensuing scene, spun out over five pages, is deliciously complicated, not just by the determination of the narrator to keep her son and herself safe, but also by her sudden momentary desire for the neighbor. In the hands of another writer, this story may have ended with something less subtle. Instead, we are left with a powerful yet quiet last scene that comes back to us again and again when we least expect it.

Elizabeth Brinsfield’s “Snow Line” is the kind of story one tells late at night. The only sounds are that of the narrator’s voice and the natural world outside. Listeners forget to breathe, and the end feels like a new beginning to a familiar world.