Excerpt of The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead
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By 1941 there was little left to cut along the Elk and
by then much of the land was sold to the government
for National Forest. That February was a twenty-seven-
inch snowfall on the mountain. The snow lay five to ten feet
deep in the woods. The railroad was unable to operate and
the twitch horses were starving in the logging camps, living
off bark and harness leather, cribbing their stalls. The felled trees had disappeared under the snow and the Captain, who was on the Elk estimating the last timber on a twenty-thousand-
acre tract, had to give up and return to the home
place, breaking path all the way.
The Captain was ninety-one years old and his skin was
the color of marble stone. What little was exposed to the
wind and cold he'd covered with a layer of petroleum jelly.
He traced his path back home, keeping on for a day and a
night, his snowshoes silently lifting and falling, his cruising
stick clasped in his mittened hand, because he knew to stop
would be to stop forever.
When he returned, his daughter Clemmie was in the
kitchen, in a rocking chair by the open fire. Her son, Henry,
sat on the floor by her side, cross-legged
on the wide stone hearth staring into the flames, his attention held by the sight
of them and their oceanic noise.
She indicated that Henry should fetch more wood and so
he stood, unfolding his body to its early awkward height.
But he lingered in the doorway, half hidden by the jamb and
"I must go," Clemmie said to her father, "and you cannot
"I know," he said.
The Captain made no argument but looked to the window
and through to the darkness beyond. Of all his children,
as many as three wives could give him, Clemmie was the
youngest, the one who knew him best and she would be the
first to ever leave him in this way. The rest had married away
from him or fled the mountain without confrontation.
"Daddy," she said. "I cannot wait until you die. I can wait
until spring," she said, relenting a bit, "but I must go."
Henry could read the Captain's face for his thinking: he
had reconciled himself to the inevitability of Clemmie's leaving,
but in waiting until spring, she would deny him the great
impossible travel through the black and frozen land.
At melt time, the Captain escorted them down the miles
of the Copperhead Road, some of the last land still treed,
unmined, and inviolate.
They rode silently, on the backs of the offsprung generations
of the coal black horses his grandfather loved so much.
They rode down the rough track on the bloodlines of warriors,
Clemmie riding behind her father and Henry following.
They left behind the great looming house where she'd been born and he was born and the land where the Captain
had been born. Henry looked back a last time and the house
seemed to rise and climb the mountain. Still to see were the
hanging terraces and curved steps, wet and gray and shining
in the vitreous spring light.
In switchback turns they made their descent, in the cold
perfume of the forest, the white pine, the laurel and dogwood
understory, and he could feel in his chest an ache for the increasing
density of the air as they descended.
Below them, a rising white torrent of runoff smashed
through heads of stone. It suddenly disappeared inside the
earth and then was with them again as they traveled its
course. Clemmie and the Captain rode in silence, neither of
them wanting to confront the confusion of their lives and the
long histories that Henry did not understand. But he knew
some of it, and it had to do with him and his mother's weariness
and she not married and the father he did not know.
There were whole days she'd be lost to him, turned inward
and silent, and then other days she could not contain her
If they could have, they would have ridden forever, as if
riding were their calling, as if they were pilgrims with their
holy land always a little farther along the path. They wanted
and needed no accounting, as long as there was a length of
trail ahead of them and no parting at the end.
From The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead. © 2012 by Robert Olmstead. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.