AN INTRODUCTION BY CHRIS ABANI
Fallow opens with a young female narrator, telling us a story. A story within a story almost never works in narrative, but in this case the thrust is towards the sacred, the mythology of redemption, and so it succeeds. If the young narrator can find the words, the essence of the inner-lives of all those stuck in a strange new Eden with her, she believes she can craft a new Zion — a true transformation. The Bible, mostly the Old Testament, is what fuels the ideology of the strange commune of people clinging onto life on her unnamed planet. Somewhere in outer space, in a mix of 19th century and 23rd century thought and technology — as anachronistic as the Amish might be on the Las Vegas strip — Samatar builds a dark fairy tale. Like the Russian fairytales, it is full of menace, always just out of reach, but there, like the wolf’s breath at Cinderella’s throat. Much of this is achieved with a careful but casual realism of description that heightens tension and unease, and drives home the feeling of the uncanny even though everything is relatable and kind of normative.
In Fallow, a group of people, like the Amish, or perhaps more precisely the Mennonites, build a new Noah’s arc, leave the Earth (which has been poisoned), and drift through space to a new planet to wait out the destruction. The original arc-ship, called The Castle, hovers in the atmosphere of the new planet. It is equipped with a communications array named Gabriel that checks for life on earth and reports back.
The style and tone of writing brings home the true sense of what it must have been like for Noah’s family to send dove after dove out into the void of the Earth, a slow, desperate but hopeful wait. The lyrical, pitch-perfect language elevates this to a stunning allegory, on par with any of Biblical parable.
Samatar builds her tale with elegant sentences that stack precisely yet sensually one on top of the other; she has a remarkable ear for nuance and dialogue, a measured and well paced attention to detail, a capacious and utterly original imagination.
And although the title points to the Fallow-ness of a ruined and poisoned Earth, the utterly unsentimental but persistent hope that undergirds every word elevates all of it to possibility. We are left with with a sureness that the Earth will rise from fallow to regeneration.
The entire excerpt is an intimacy that trembles with tenderness. In a gentle but heartbreaking way, Samatar withholds the flutter of a divine ecstatic from Ms. Snowfall, who has all the repressed burning desire of the Catholic saint, Theresa. In the more typical male fantasy and sci-fi worlds, there is always a relentless driving to war mongering. In Fallow the drive is to restitution, towards the reimagined. This is not to suggest that there is no danger and risk, or that there is no conflict, it is simply handled in a more sophisticated way. The lean here is to the heart of empathy, the human drive to connect and create not shatter, the urge to beauty even in the darkest moments.
The fact that the heart of Fallow is based on an actual historical event, the migration of Mennonites from Southern Russia to what is now Uzbekistan in the 1880’s, infuses the narrative with a realness, a grounding that makes it easy to believe in; and yet Samatar never compromises the push into fantasy.
Sofia Samatar writes with a clear feminist slant and social engagement, an understanding of history and the circle of the political wheel. Her work leans into the traditions of Margaret Atwood (in The Edible Woman and The Handmaid’s Tale), Octavia Butler (in The Parable of the Sower) but with as layered, original and complex a world as anything devised by Tolkien or Lucas, and all the endless yearning of Toni Morrison and Kafka. Not only should be you read Fallow, but you should read her novels, A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories.
– Chris Abani
Author of The Secret History of Las Vegas
A Dark Fairytale About Post-Earth Education
by Sofia Samatar
Here is the peaceable kingdom.
I once heard a beautiful story. Two people, a brother and sister, worked at the Castle until they were very old. Then the sister fell ill and couldn’t work anymore. In her illness her eyes became brighter and brighter, and her face thinner, until she looked like a little old child. Eventually she was so small the brother could carry her on his back. He carried her up to the Castle for medical treatment. There’s a long part of the story in which the brother staggers through the Castle, getting confused, going into the wrong rooms, waiting for hours to get clearance. All the time he has his sister on his back, and also something else: her pain, which has been growing until it nearly fills her whole body. “Pain is the heaviest thing,” said Miss Snowfall, who was telling the story. A faint clicking came from the back of the room, where some boys were fiddling with chalk. At the end of the story, the two old people were so worn out and bewildered they returned to the village without even seeing a doctor. The old woman died in her bed, underneath her own quilt, holding her brother’s hand. Her last words were: “Do you remember the way to the Castle?” Miss Snowfall delivered these words in a soft voice, almost a murmur, a voice that always filled me with a special anguish, because it made it seem as if she were speaking not to us but to herself, that she was far from us, removed. After the story she took out her handkerchief and, in a characteristic gesture, doubled it up and pressed it to her lips. Temar hated the story of the brother and sister, but to me it’s like a window through which I can see another world.
In those days, if you had asked any of us what we wanted to do when we grew up, we would have answered: “Work at the Castle.” Children probably say the same thing today, but I imagine it carries a different meaning for them than it did for Miss Snowfall’s pupils. For us, who had the immense good fortune to study under a teacher so inventive and eccentric we often didn’t know we were studying, a teacher whose one goal seemed to be to whip our imaginations into a frenzy, the Castle was a temple, a magic portal, a citadel, a cave. Ezera said it was an inverted world in which people floated face downward. Lia insisted people there spoke without words, in bolts of electricity. To all of these fancies Miss Snowfall responded with an approving smile, a smile that was slightly sad and therefore irresistible. We competed with one another for the honor of provoking that smile. Even those whose parents worked at the Castle, such as Elias, whose father was a security guard, or Markos, whose mother conducted inspections of the water system, made up outrageous stories without being scolded. “That’s probably true,” Miss Snowfall would say with her melancholy smile. The classroom was a zone free from accusation. All things were permitted there, above all Miss Snowfall’s weird assignments, which included knitting and lying on the floor to contemplate the inner light.
After school the children would pour out into the yard and then through one of the gates, either through the north gate with the inscription WASTE NOT, WANT NOT, or, like Temar and me, through the south gate, which bore the inscription ARBEITE UND HOFFE. Miss Snowfall also left through the south gate, but not immediately after school. Instead she would stand at the window, half concealed by the curtain, as if she were watching us go, although it also seemed she couldn’t see us, for if we waved to her she never waved back. Temar constructed a romance for Miss Snowfall out of the fact that Mr. Cinders, who taught mathematics to the upper classes, always glanced toward the window of our schoolroom as he bent to pin back the legs of his trousers before mounting his bicycle. But Miss Snowfall never made him any sign either, and so Mr. Cinders cycled home slowly to Unmarried Male Housing, a dreary edifice known as the Barn, to dine (as we imagined) in a hall full of noisy men who made fun of his protruding ears.
Miss Snowfall did not live in Unmarried Female Housing (known as the Henhouse) but in a room above Nimble’s dry goods dispensary. The Nimble family lived in the other rooms. If you were lucky enough to be sent out after supper to get some sugar or a packet of needles, you could see the silhouettes of the Nimble children romping about in the whitish light that filtered through the blinds. The real attraction, of course, was Miss Snowfall’s window, which gave off a yellow light, and through which no movement at all could be discerned. She was reading, we told each other, she was observing the inner radiance, she was writing letters or drawing a self-portrait. I was admitted to this room twice: once after Temar was lost and Miss Snowfall made me sit in her chair and chafed my hands, and a second time when Miss Snowfall herself was lost, having managed, with typical ingenuity, to hang herself from the light fixture.
For me, those early school days are infused with a Sunday glow. In fact, the real glow of Sundays, which has inspired so many verses, and which rules our bodies like the hand of a hidden puppeteer, has never made me as happy as the rusty gloom of the schoolroom. On Sundays when I was a child, we would get up early, like everyone else, and rush outside into the intensified light. My mother would always be there before us, seated in her chair in front of the house, her eyes closed, her entire body gilded. We would sit beside her on the squares of roughcloth we called “the outdoor blankets,” careful to keep our feet on them so our scrubbed shoes wouldn’t get dusty, enveloped in a timid silence, not even waving to our friends across the road, who were sitting outside with their own parents. All over the village, a hush. Only the cows broke it, lowing. And my father would appear around the side of the house, his hands clasped behind him, his beard shining, his good shoes tightly encased in galoshes, returning from letting them out to pasture.
Then we stood and shook out and folded our blankets. My mother snapped shut her collapsible chair. Sometimes she stumbled slightly, saturated, dazed with light. We collected our Bibles and walked to church. Everyone looked dim and hot. A hymn rose, faint but steadily growing, from those who had already arrived. We smiled at each other, at friends, but did not speak. We began to sing. We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing. If we whispered, or looked as if we might step off the edge of the road, our father tapped our ankles with his cane.
Marvelous light. The white church seemed to pulse. You could feel it taking hold of you, lifting you. At school, Miss Snowfall explained the influence of that glow. We diagrammed the pineal gland while she spoke of the delicate secretions that make us particularly happy on Sundays. “Why can’t we have Sunday light every day?” asked Selemon. Miss Snowfall replied with her favorite question: “What do you think?” Hands shot up; we guessed that too much light, like too much sugar, could make you sick, that it would be wasteful, that God wouldn’t like it. Miss Snowfall erased the pineal gland and drew a line representing the surface of Fallow. She drew its tiny, fugitive sun, with arrows for rays. Squares represented the solar fields; a great opaque blob was our generator, which, she reminded us, has to power everything. It has to keep the reservoir working, the heaters for the pastures, the vast grain corridor, the production labs, the smithy, the workshops, the grottoes. “It has to power these lights,” she said, indicating the orange bulbs in the ceiling. “It has to make air. It has to run the Castle.”
We walked home through the eternal cold of the village, hands shoved deep into our coat pockets. I thought Selemon, who worked in the pastures after school, and who always smelled vaguely of the shit he collected on a cart, might grumble about all the fuel that goes to the generators of the Castle. Couldn’t they use some of it to light the sky? But Selemon left us as usual at the crossroads, hat pulled low over his curls, giving us a quick wave before trotting off down Granite Road. We walked on with the other children who lived in our district, our breath rising white in the twilight, a tentative, greenish twilight that colored the tops of the houses, a twilight that would last just long enough for us to feed the chickens and bring in the wash before going out at the touch of a distant switch. Temar walked beside me, her chin sunk in the folds of her scarf. I was already taller than she, though nearly two years younger. I could see from her posture, her frown, that she was thinking, and knew from experience that if I spoke to her now I’d get a sharp reply. So instead of talking to her I talked to our parents at supper, cheerfully, volubly, in order to compensate for her silence. And, as usual, she gave me in exchange for this kindness a gift of far greater worth. When we were in bed, when I was sure she was sleeping, she spoke. Into the icy darkness of our room came the words I would not have dared to say, but which perfectly articulated my own feelings, words that fell on my heart with a bursting shock of recognition, reverberating for days afterward: “I hate Sundays.”
After that I felt oppressed by Sundays, hounded. There was something dreadful about the secret workings of my pineal gland. I considered it a triumph if I could maintain a sour mood in the warmth of the churchyard, among the freshly washed and laughing children. As for Temar, she adopted an outward sign of isolation: It was around this time that she began to wear the shapeless black hat, knotted together from cast-off strings in Miss Snowfall’s classroom, that led people to call her Temar Black Hat. This hat is the reason I am known as Agar Black Hat today, even though I have never worn such an article. I have been left with a phantom hat, a mark. It’s better than nothing. “Fill the slate,” Miss Snowfall used to urge us, “to the edge.”
She was the daughter of Deacon Brass and his wife, who was known as Sister Brass. Her name was Sara. She received the name “Snowfall” after a fire. She was six years old when the Great Western Fire destroyed nearly a quarter of the village — workshops, granaries, labs, and animals. Seated on her desk in our classroom, swinging one foot, she described these horrors in a calm voice. The raw, piercing screams of chickens and, unimaginably, cattle. Men and women looming in the glow of the sky, which stayed on for three days, and in the blazing light of the fire. Everyone was covered with the earth they were using to smother the flames. They moved frantically and clumsily, figures of mud. Human bodies were dragged from the furnace, some of them still on fire. The ones that wouldn’t stop screaming were carried to the infirmary. Handcarts rushed up and down the tracks, traveling east with bodies, traveling west with enormous piles of dirt, in both cases materializing out of clouds of smoke only to disappear again with a doleful creaking.
Sara stood at the window, where she had been instructed to pray, holding the blinds apart with her small fingers. The blinds felt hot; her eyes felt hot. And the ashes that began to fall looked pale and cool, like what we know of snow. To the child at the window, the air appeared full of one of the miraculous substances of Earth. “I wanted,” she told us, “to run out and let it fall in my eyes.” “Mother,” she cried, “it’s snowing!” And so she received her gently mocking nickname, becoming known from that day as Sara Snowfall.
“But the most memorable part of that time,” she told us, “was the color blue.” She had discovered, standing at the window, that if she looked at the orange flames in the distance and then closed her eyes, she was treated to a marvelous image of the fire in deep blue. The power of this memory led her to the back of the classroom, to her vast collection of specimens, odds-and-ends, and outright trash, to fetch the color wheel she had made with various powdered minerals fastened to a slate with glue. In accordance with her idiosyncratic, associative method, a drawing lesson followed, and then a lecture on the Age of Disorder, when our ancestors, crazed with longing for the vivid colors of Earth, took to stabbing themselves in the eyes with picks.
I would not want to suggest, especially in light of Miss Snowfall’s fate, that we did not learn the proper curriculum. Miss Snowfall was extremely thorough. Often, when we arrived at school, we would find her poring over the huge books issued by the Council. To do this she wore a special reading lamp strapped to her forehead, advancing through our course of study like a miner. When we sidled in, awed by the sight of the books, she would look up and blind us for a moment with her flaming brow. Then she would switch off the light, and when our vision cleared we would see our own dear teacher, perhaps already pressing her handkerchief to her lips, wearing her customary pleasant and faintly sad expression, only a bit more tired, bowed down by the weight of history. We would take out our slates and Miss Snowfall would stand up and begin her lecture. With an energy and fluency I have rarely seen behind the pulpit, she spoke of the Former Days of Earth, of its bitter atmosphere and boiling seas, its floods, its storms, its wars and conflagrations. She spoke of the Universal Draft, which was, she explained, only the latest and largest version of the many drafts our people had faced throughout history, the innumerable calls to war we had refused, and for which we had been so often imprisoned, ridiculed, tortured, exiled, killed. My heart beat faster; I found myself scratching the underside of my bench with a fingernail, which always has a calming effect on me. Some of the children had tears in their eyes. It was so unfair, this senseless persecution, the pressing into evil of a people who only wished to be left alone. Miss Snowfall described the elders of the community, dignified and austere, holding the little children by the hand, standing outside the prisons in the hope of delivering some bread and comfort to an incarcerated generation. People going by would shove them, trying to make them fight. In one terrible region they tore out the old men’s beards. She spoke of the Great World Conference and the decision to depart, not for a sympathetic country — there was none — but for the stars.
“And they built an Ark,” she told us, “in the hills of Misraq Gojjam.” She was keen to impress on us not only the heroism of the engineers, but the achievements of the preachers, lawyers, schoolteachers, and bureaucrats who made it possible to save so many. In some parts of the Earth, governments were only too happy to let our people go; in others they strove to block us with laws and tariffs. Sums were raised in wealthy regions in order to help the poor ones, and peaceful liberation campaigns filled the streets. Of course, almost immediately there were disagreements and schisms. Some said only those of our faith should be permitted to join the trek; others said we must take everyone who desired a life of peace; still others argued over our faith itself, its character, its law. Such debates were especially fierce among those who practiced seclusion. Of these, some eventually boarded the Ark, believing that God would prefer them to accept a life dependent on advanced technology, rather than a life of war or a stillness amounting to suicide. Others, Miss Snowfall told us quietly, stayed on their burnt farms, among the cattle who were dying in the dust. In one district they shook out their sheets and curtains for the last time and went to bed, resolved not to rise until Judgment Day.
The Ark set sail. It was the Age of Drift. We rubbed out our slates and copied the plan of the ship Miss Snowfall drew on the blackboard. “The Age of Loaves and Fishes,” she quipped, and a giggle went round the room, not because the joke was funny but because we needed to laugh. It was true the Drifters made do with almost nothing. For this, we revered them. Generations were born and died on the Ark. The bodies of the dead supported those of the living. For some reason still unclear to us, all the horses perished.
On the Ark they had a place similar to our grottoes called the Hanging Gardens. They had fish tanks, cages, rows and rows of beds. Most importantly, they had the great monitor Gabriel, which gave them a report from Earth every twenty-five years. Now Gabriel stands at the center of the Castle, where he still delivers his report every quarter of a century, as he did without fail, like a mighty clock, through the Age of Disorder, the cave-ins, the plagues, the fires, the cults, the breakdowns of the sky. “Put on your coats,” Miss Snowfall said. She always knew when to take us outside. The room filled with happy jostling, voices, the drumming of feet. It is estimated that we will be able to return to Earth five hundred years after Gabriel reports a total absence of human life.
Mornings of childhood. The rush to get up, despite the biting chill of the floor, in order to be the first to use the water, and how often Temar, just as I thought I was winning, slipped in front of me and slammed the door of the bathroom in my face. The water, slick and gray with soap. Using Temar’s old water was better than using my parents’, which I would have to do if she spilled it (as happened more than once), for my parents’ old water was speckled with tiny hairs. Down the stairs, taking the last three steps at a jump. Wan kitchen light. Injections, my mother’s fingers warm, the needle cold. Only babies cried at their injections. Our little brother, Yonas, still cried, and Temar hushed him: “Father will hear you.” Then the potatoes with beet syrup, spoons clattering on plates. Coats and hats. As we ran out, Father was coming in from milking. No matter how wildly we hurried, we never escaped without meeting him, his great cracked hand extended, his mournful black eyes that seemed to read our thoughts. “Good morning, Father,” we chorused, and shook his hand. Then down the path and over the gate, never bothering to open it but swinging up over the rails. The sky was blue-green, Sheba and Naomi were running to meet us, and in the distance the roar of the smithy had begun.
Through the village, looking both ways for handcarts before we crossed the tracks, passing the Nimble store, the dispensary with the glass lamp in the window, the workshop where the door was propped open and looms already clacked, the desolate stretch of ground in front of the archives where Brother Lookout was sweeping. All day he swept the village streets with his funny sideways walk, his head subtly shaking as if he were always saying no, turning up a surprising amount of garbage, much of which found its way to Miss Snowfall’s classroom, where it was used in projects or simply gathered dust. We ran past Brother Lookout, we ran even faster past the house where Sister Blunt had died and her husband had covered all the windows with roughcloth, we flew past Sister Wheel, who was always standing in her yard beside a table on which she had placed a cup of coffee, we cut through the old surveyors’ camp, avoiding the piles of rubble, always wary of the boys who sometimes hid there to throw stones, and then other children were joining us, smelling of jackets and burnt potatoes, and it was now, we were climbing the hill, we were at school.
The door of our classroom stood wide open, and Miss Snowfall leaned against it, arms crossed, smiling. The bell clanged, rung by Little Yosef, the headmaster’s nephew. And perhaps we would go in, sit down, and take out our slates, or perhaps by the time the last notes of the bell died away we would be on our way down the hill in two orderly lines. For Miss Snowfall believed in what she called “experiential learning.” There were many days when we never set chalk to slate. Instead we walked all over the village, into the archives, the smithy, and the weaving workshop, where we bruised our fingers trying the machines. Together we pumped the handcarts and rode up and down an abandoned stretch of track. We visited the metal dome of the Zeitgeber, and were given a lecture on chronobiology by Brother Barter, who stammered whenever Miss Snowfall looked at him. We visited the clearance shed, where Sister Singer, who was as slim, sharp, and restless as Miss Snowfall was round and solid, gave us a special pink gum, which, she said, they chewed at the Castle, and allowed us to crowd up to the window and look at the Castle door. “How does it open?” Sheba asked. “From the inside, my love,” said Sister Singer, peering up herself at the silver disc in the sky. “They open it up and send down whatever they want. And when the people go up, the ones that work there, they send down a ladder for them.”
Filled with the image of Brother Bell and Sister Glove, the parents of our classmates Elias and Markos, ascending to heaven on a ladder like a pair of angels, we filed out into the grainy afternoon air to end our school day at the grottoes. This was Miss Snowfall’s favorite place; indeed, she often joked to us that she had become a teacher only so as to secure a pass to that paradise. We made more trips to the grottoes than anywhere else. At the entrance we had to leave Markos, who suffered from allergies, in the care of the doorkeeper, Brother Flint, a cheerful old man with a worn gray hat whose pockets were full of finger puppets in the shape of animals, which he made out of cast-off clothes. I believe his whole menagerie must have come from the same garment, for the little pig, the little sheep, the swan, and even the bumblebee had been sewn out of identical black cloth, and looked so much alike that only Brother Flint himself could tell them apart. I always hurried into the front hall so as to see as little as possible of Markos, who would have to spend the next hour being entertained by these puppets, and whose misery as he watched us go was palpable. In the sterilization chamber I felt as if the stinging jets were scouring off my guilt.
In the room beyond we all put on the dresses of white paper. Already we could feel the air of the grottoes. Sheba said it gave her a headache. In the next room we met the boys and put on the dark glasses. Then we walked out into the grass.
Sometimes, like Sheba, I had a headache at first. Sometimes I felt dizzy, even nauseous, but this never lasted long. Creamy sunlight warmed my face. I was sweating. A powerful greenness filled my lungs, as if I were breathing in the color. Miss Snowfall brushed her hands over the plants and told us their names. Beneath the white dress, her legs were dotted with black hair. She waved to the grotto workers, who waved back, silent, swathed in white veils. There was a buzzing sound, and things rustled in the grass. We watched the fish in their pools, we saw a turtle make its way into the water, we stood at the edge of the deer park and cooed at the fawns, we observed the scientists working behind glass, where even Miss Snowfall did not have clearance to go, at the tanks that seethed with life, the lungs of Fallow. Always, at the end, we sat on the grass beneath the trees. Many of our classmates dropped off to sleep, for the grottoes made one drowsy.
With slow gestures, Miss Snowfall unbraided her hair and massaged her scalp, as if to allow the warmth to penetrate her skull. Her braids undone, her hair standing up, she looked winsome and very young. She began to tell us stories from the Bible. She spoke of poplar and chestnut trees, and of manna, which is white like coriander seed, and tastes of wafers made with honey. The light of the grottoes filled me to my fingertips — not like a Sunday light, which often accompanied terrifying words from the pulpit, confessions, and scenes of discipline, but like the light of seven days, in the day that the Lord bindeth up the breach of His people and healeth the stroke of their wound.
Often Lia crept into Miss Snowfall’s lap and curled up there, sucking her thumb. Anywhere else, we would have mocked her for this babyish behavior, and who knows, even Miss Snowfall might have disapproved. But the grottoes enfolded her in their magic circle. I suspect Miss Snowfall knew, though we did not — yet — that Lia was beaten at home, more often and more severely than any of us, even Temar. Whatever the reason, she cradled Lia, murmuring of the aloes and the cedar trees which are beside the waters. Once, sitting very close to them, I discerned beneath the chemical tang of sterilization another smell, secret, rich, and sweet, a stink which I realized came from Miss Snowfall’s feet. At that moment I heard, as clearly as if I had spoken them, the words: Here is the peaceable kingdom.
This is not the first time I have written something I intend to submit for preservation. I have submitted a number of works, more than I care to remember. All have been rejected. I have submitted dramas, fantastical stories, novels of Old Earth, children’s tales, even hymns. At this point, merely to pass by the archives gives me a queasy feeling. For this reason, I rarely go into town, and if I need something unavailable in Housing, I pick it up from Sister Bundle’s little stand, rather than visiting the stores. It is a terrible feeling to have your work pulped. Brother Chalk at the archives — whom I call Ezera, since I knew him at school — tries to comfort me by telling me that pulped paper makes fresh paper possible, that destruction and renewal is the cycle of life. His remaining hair clumped at the back of his head, his chubby jowls fringed with beard, he is a good man, a father, sympathetic, and one of my best friends. The last time I spoke with him, I thanked God that I had no pencil with me, for I might have succumbed to the temptation to drive it into his hand.
Outside on the street after I was rejected the walls of the village were crisp, the gleam of the Castle door in the distance extraordinarily distinct. I walked home with the new sheaf of paper under my arm. And I began to write in a different direction, without thinking of the Council. I began to write what I feel is truly worthy of preservation, what I cannot help preserving in my memory. I have no doubt that this writing, too, will be pulped. But I feel at the same time that I am enabling something of Miss Snowfall to hover in the world. The more I write, the more her presence grows, and I am amazed at how much I remember of her, a person I had to a large extent forgotten, first because I was preoccupied with my own problems, and later because the memory of her was so painful. “Put it in the dustyard,” we say, when we mean that a thought or question should disappear. “Put it in the dustyard, Agar,” Temar said to me, the night I saw her spit a tooth into the sink. But lately only these scenes stand out to me, and I kneel, overwhelmed, in the dustyard of memory.
Strange that this dustyard should hold images of such splendor. Miss Snowfall’s bright face, her laugh, her stockings mended poorly because (she said) she was lazy, her wobbling progress through town on her brother’s bicycle when he visited her from the mining camp and loaned her his machine. Miss Snowfall, living in town as she did, had never been granted a bicycle, but at some point her brother had taught her how to ride, and sometimes on Saturdays she appeared, shaky and triumphant, running her usual errands in fine style. She always dismounted with a nervous leap, which sometimes caused the bicycle to fall over, spilling her packages on the ground. Then she would laugh so merrily that whoever was around her laughed too, helping to pick up her things, never embarrassed. Even Sister Wheel, standing outside by her eternal cup of coffee, allowed a faint smile to thaw her face when Miss Snowfall crashed that bicycle, and Miss Snowfall would dust herself off and greet Sister Wheel, as she always did, for she feared no one — on the contrary, she had a special affection for the oddest characters in the village. She stopped to chat with Sister Wheel every Saturday, bicycle or no, though “chat” seems an exaggerated way of describing a conversation with Sister Wheel, who tended to stare at passers-by with an expression of controlled fury before dropping a “Hello!” from her mouth like a stone. Sister Wheel had been a Young Evangelist, and was now what was called “peculiar.” She was often alluded to in sermons on the virtue of moderation. But Miss Snowfall spoke to her naturally, and in response I once heard Sister Wheel reply to her with a complete sentence: “It’s a waiting game, Sister, that’s all.”
How wonderful it was to see our teacher outside school, to hear her addressed as “Sister” rather than “Miss,” to greet her formally in the street while she twinkled at us with a kind of amusement that failed to conceal her pride in our good behavior. She spoke to our parents, she knew everyone, she greeted our little brother Yonas and laughed when he hid his face in our mother’s neck, she was an ordinary person, carrying ordinary things, syringes, bags of flour, some gum she needed to fix a crack in a table. Meeting her like this, we felt that the marvelous air she breathed, the life she lived, was accessible to us, close. Best of all was seeing her brother in church: a short dark man with a heavy beard who once showed us the knife he kept in the side of his boot.
Why is it that when I write these memories down, they swell until they seem to contain my whole body? Miss Snowfall and her brother in the churchyard, convulsed with laughter as Bishop Gloss walked by with crumbs in his beard. Bishop Gloss was the most terrifying man in the village, the head of every meeting, a brooding presence at every disciplinary discussion, he had driven Brother Lookout out of his mind, it was said, he had come to our house to reprimand our father for keeping a dirty henhouse. We couldn’t imagine laughing at him even if, at the fellowship meal that followed the service, he had bathed his whole head in soup. But Miss Snowfall and her brother stood frozen with suppressed mirth at the sight of the crumbs suspended in his majestic beard. Tears started from her brother’s eyes; Miss Snowfall crossed her legs just as we did when we laughed too hard. She pinched her brother’s arm harshly, like a child. At that the air came slowly out of his nose with a high-pitched whistle like the sound of the ancient brakes on his bicycle . . . Memories sparkling palely in the dustyard. The way Miss Snowfall lifted her chin when she said to Temar: “You may keep the hat.” The hat, a knitting project, certainly should have been unraveled when it was finished, the thread returned to the box. But Temar had picked out all the black threads with such care, knotted them together so cleverly, even the hair and wire. And Miss Snowfall, with a strange redness around her eyes, said: “Keep the hat.” In the same way she said to me, a year later: “You can be a writer.” Another excessive gesture, the jutting chin, the red, sore-looking eyes. The other children snickered; Temar ducked her head, embarrassed. But Miss Snowfall said firmly: “Writing is a noble pursuit.” The words sounded awkward, as words do when they have never been said before.
Perhaps this is why my memory of her is illuminated, enveloping: because, as much as we loved her, she dwelt among us like a stranger. I see her standing by the chalkboard, her arms crossed, rubbing her sleeves as if to keep off a chill, her face closed down, inert. Miss Snowfall could not bear discipline. If her pupils interrupted her — Markos and Elias were the worst offenders in our class, scuffling in the back — she simply stopped speaking. She would retreat into herself, go to the window, press her handkerchief to her lips. The first time this happened we were entertained, we wondered how long it might go on, and an evil spirit seemed to seep into the room, the cruel, gloating twin of the spirit of happy permissiveness that surrounded us when we spent whole afternoons building cities from empty jars. The chatter grew louder; Little Yosef laughed his braying laugh. Then Temar got up and strode to the back of the room. “Shut up!” she shouted at the boys. “Yes, be quiet!” I echoed, running up behind her, and some of the others joined in: “Let Miss Snowfall talk!” Temar’s fists were clenched, her whole body shook, the air was charged with unbearable energy, and Elias looked us up and down with his slow gaze, a sneer spreading on his face, and I felt that something terrible was going to happen, when Miss Snowfall shocked us, shattering everything.
“No, no!” she cried breathlessly, rushing toward us in such haste that her hip banged against a desk. “Don’t, please don’t!”
She was speaking to Temar and me. Temar’s eyes widened, amazed and hurt, and I felt a pang, for weren’t we Miss Snowfall’s defenders?
“Don’t, please,” Miss Snowfall repeated, trembling.
The class fell silent. Gloom covered us. Temar and I returned to our seats. Tears were trickling down my cheeks; I buried my face in my sleeve. When I looked up Miss Snowfall was paging roughly through a book, trying to find her place. She dropped her chalk on the floor, where it broke. Although I could not have expressed the thought at the time, I understood then that she had a horror of the exercise of power, not only the obvious sorts of power — the rod, the shout — but the type we knew most intimately: the power of the group. She had a horror of the downcast eye that waits for others to act, of the elders appearing at houses because someone, claiming to defer to their authority, has summoned them, of the public prayer that flays a member of the congregation in coded language. In other words, a horror of Fallow.
When Miss Snowfall was removed from her position, I had not been at school for two years. It was a difficult time for my family: Temar was working at the Castle and often refused to come home for the weekend, a source of great tension. As I recall, my sister was not at church when the special prayer for Miss Snowfall was held. I remember the heat of the sanctuary, the windows full of light, the grimy feel of the metal pew as I gripped it and scratched at its underside with a fingernail, discreetly, careful not to cause any noticeable vibration. Of course this sensual memory might have been lifted from any Sunday. From that particular day, I remember a sag of the heart as the bishop announced that Miss Snowfall was leaving the school, a feeling of guilt as he described her errors — the “haphazard” and “unorthodox” methods I had loved — and an immediate anxiety about what Temar would say. Then a long, circuitous prayer. Those in Miss Snowfall’s vicinity were invited to lay hands on her, but I was too far away. I could only see, at the distant front of the church, the rustling bulge of bodies surrounding her until she entirely disappeared.
Afterward, at the fellowship meal, I remember thinking she looked scrubbed, almost scoured, as if she had washed her face too hard. Her eyebrows were sparse, her hair faded to gray. She gazed down at her plate with her head tilted, wearing an odd little smile. Several of the children were crying and had to be taken away. The truth is, it was a scene of woe. People were greeting each other, shaking hands, finding their seats. Before starting the meal we sang “The Beautiful River”:
Oh, will you not drink of the beautiful stream,
And dwell on its peaceful shore?
The Spirit says: Come, all ye weary ones, home,
And wander in sin no more.
O seek that beautiful stream,
O seek that beautiful stream.
Its waters, so free,
Are flowing for thee,
O seek that beautiful stream.
The next time I saw Miss Snowfall, Temar was gone. I had been walking for some time. I had set out at dusk, carrying the lantern, and walked along the edge of the pasture all the way to the grain corridor before the light in my hand began to flicker. On Fallow there is always a subtle sense of being closed in. I put my hand on the wall of the corridor; it was freezing. Behind that wall, which reached all the way to the sky, humid air caressed our grain and an intricate irrigation system watered the ground. The water was made at the other end of the corridor and kept in the reservoir. Pipes transported it all over the village. I stood in the darkness, breathing hard. We are capable of such miracles but no one could bring my sister back to me.
My lamp was growing dim. I turned and headed back toward town, where a cluster of lights gleamed out of the dark. It was like a great ship twinkling all along its sides with holiday lights such as I had read about in the stories of Earth. By the time I arrived among those lights I could no longer feel my feet. I stopped and glanced up at a shadow in one of the windows. Someone stood there, looking out. I wondered if the person could see me. Then the figure vanished and the window shone clear.
I was turning away when a door opened and Miss Snowfall came out into the street. “Who’s there?” she cried, peering into the night.
“Agar, Temar Black Hat’s sister.”
“I saw your light go out,” she said.
I looked down at the lantern in my hand; it was dead.
“Look at that,” I said. I found it hard to work my lips, they were so cold. “Do you know, I was just standing here thinking about ships. Coming into the village I thought the lights looked like the lights of a ship but they really look the way I think the lights of a ship must look. Must have looked, I mean. Or perhaps they still look that way, on the green seas of Earth, with the seagulls winging overhead. Do you think there are still ships?”
Miss Snowfall seemed to consider. Then she said: “You’d better come up and charge that light.”
Her room was surprisingly bare. As a child, I had imagined it stuffed with treasure — a more splendid, more glittering version of her junk collection in our classroom. But it was simple, like anyone’s room. Bed, worktable, chair, gas stove, a lamp shaded with yellow roughcloth. There was a ceiling lamp too, but it wasn’t on. Of course I thought about that later. I thought so much about Miss Snowfall’s room, the big shadows thrown by the lamp, the chair covered with something shaggy, perhaps an old coat, where she made me sit. She knelt and tugged off my boots. Her hair was thin, wide tracks of scalp between the braids. She stripped the quilt off the bed and wrapped it around my feet. There was a photograph on the wall, a ghostly deer among weeds. “Oh, Miss Snowfall,” I said, “my sister has run away.”
“Yes,” Miss Snowfall said quietly, and a charge went through my chest, everything coming up, my face swelling and twisting from the pressure, the pressure of my rage, this useless rage that had nowhere to go, and I broke, I sobbed in her chair, I bawled like a calf.
Miss Snowfall pulled off my gloves. She rubbed my hands. When I was calmer, she made coffee. My lantern, plugged into her outlet, had begun to glow. She put a cup of coffee into my hands and sat on the bed with her own, regarding me with frank, unhappy eyes.
I sipped the coffee shakily. “That’s nice,” I said, nodding at the picture of the deer.
Miss Snowfall lowered her gaze.
“I mean, I don’t care,” I added quickly, realizing that the picture could only have come from one of the Council schoolbooks, that it was stolen.
She looked up at me and smiled. For the first time, I noticed the tremor in her lips. Her lips jumped and twitched when she was not speaking. I saw how she tried to disguise it by holding her cup in front of her mouth or drumming her fingertips against her chin. I thought of her old habit of pressing her handkerchief to her lips. I wondered if she had always had this tic, or if, when I was a child, it had been only a vague sensation, a premonition underneath the skin.
I dried my eyes on my sleeve and blinked. “Is it an Earth deer?”
“Yes,” Miss Snowfall said, turning to look at the photograph. Her cheek quivered, but the rest of her body seemed filled with a deep stillness like the otherworldly stillness of the picture. The deer looked into the room where we were. In the photograph, too, it was night. The deer stood motionless, pale, its perfect antlers etched against the dark. Its eyes were globes of molten light, symmetrical and clear. A night camera had captured it, Miss Snowfall said.
“It was wrong to take it,” she added, “but I was angry, and I wanted something.”
“It’s not wrong to be angry.”
She looked at me with some of the old amusement. “No?”
“No. Even Job was angry with God.”
“Yes, but he yielded, he didn’t go about tearing the pages out of books.”
We laughed, then Miss Snowfall sighed and looked at the picture again. She told me it came from one of the fallow regions of Earth. A place abandoned by human beings because they had poisoned it, ruined it. And slowly, once they had gone, the animals crept in.
“I guess all of Earth will be like that one day,” I said.
“That’s the idea.”
I was startled by the harshness of her tone. When I left, she made me take the picture. I folded it up and put it in my boot. It was the last time I saw her alive.