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Silver Storm

by Joyce Carol Oates


Wyn brought Ruth to his brother’s house near the Delaware Water Gap because he has something he must tell her: but the holiday weekend is rapidly passing, they will have to drive back to Princeton in the morning, and he hasn’t yet had an opportunity. It must be a perfect moment, he thinks. Even the setting must be perfect.

Now, on New Year’s Day at mid-morning, they find themselves hiking in an open field, sun-dazzled by snow and ice. Overnight, by a miracle, everything has become encased in ice. The sky is a clear fierce blue and the temperature is well below freezing and there’s nowhere to look that isn’t blinding. Ruth keeps saying, in an awed voice, that she has never seen anything more beautiful. All the trees in sight, all the shrubs, even the meanest weeds, even a sagging barbed wire fence—everything has turned to glass. It’s glittering, gleaming, like crystal.

Wyn, who grew up on a small farm in western Massachusetts, knows that ice storms are killing, no matter the impact of their beauty on the eye. He believes that he can hear trees cracking; he knows that the heavy glaze of ice on the snow will make it difficult for birds to feed. Indeed, at this very moment, they are probably hiking over the corpses of birds trapped beneath the ice crust. He says, more censoriously than he means: “It’s only beautiful to look at.”

Ruth turns to him and laughs, lightly touching his arm—as if he has said something witty.

It has long been Wyn’s role, or his fate, to be a “witty” person.

But the landscape is remarkable, Wyn must admit. A feast for the eye. The mind’s eye too. And it’s good for them to be out of the cabin at last and getting some vigorous exercise. The danger, back there, was that Wyn might weaken suddenly—isn’t this the temptation of “strong” personalities?—and tell his wife something irrevocable.

They have both been trained in the law; they both have a sombre sort of respect for, or apprehension of, testimony. And even in quite ordinary matters something once said cannot be unsaid. Wyn contemplates the words I love you. A simple statement, or a vow—? I love you, I loved you, I no longer love you, of course I love you: I will love you forever. If I am capable of loving anyone at all.

Wyn asks Ruth, in perhaps too heartily solicitous a tone, if she isn’t getting winded—they had stayed up past midnight of New Year’s Eve, drinking a bottle of French champagne. She says impatiently: “Wyn, I’ve never felt better.”

He feels himself subtly rebuffed. He walks on in silence, a few feet behind Ruth. If she slips and falls on the ice—and she’s really rather awkward in her two-inch-heeled leather boots—he’ll be in a position to catch her.

The landscape may be perfection of a kind—rainbow-prisms, icicles that appear to flash fire, contours of the earth frozen to a hard glazed beauty—but the moment isn’t perfect. Wyn draws a sharp breath, feels pain in his lungs, pain and elation both. He’s a coward, he acknowledges himself as a coward, morally, intellectually, and physically too: yes, for all his size he suspects he would be a physical coward, if confronted with danger. But especially morally: for he dreads either to hurt or to be hurt.

Wyn and Ruth are walking in a gingerly manner across a sloping field in the direction of a lake-sized pond Wyn remembers—at least he believes he remembers it—taking care not to step down too hard on the icy crust, so that their heels don’t break through. Wyn, who weighs about one hundred eighty pounds, feels the strain on the ice; the precarious sensation communicates itself through his knees and thighs, making him edgy, excited, the way he felt as a boy venturing out onto forbidden thin ice. It’s an undeniably pleasurable sensation: his heartbeat slightly accelerated, his senses alert. He isn’t altogether in control and yet he is in control, since he has chosen his circumstances. He can’t resist slipping an arm around Ruth’s shoulder and saying: “Aren’t you glad we come out here, instead of staying in Princeton?”

“Yes,” Ruth says, “it’s what we both needed—we’ve been going to too many parties lately.”

She smiles at him, warmly, happily, though Wyn doesn’t care to be reminded of parties or of drinking or of certain of their friends. But Ruth’s words are innocent, like her smile. That smile that long ago had the power of tripping his heart. Her eyes are clearly visible through her green-tinted sunglasses; Wyn imagines that the right eye, which was injured a few weeks ago in a minor accident, is still faintly discolored, and would pulse hot against his fingertips, against his gentle cupped hand.

(This frozen winter landscape must be all the more precious to Ruth, Wyn realizes, because, for a terrible six or eight hours in early December they had worried that she might lose the vision in her right eye. She had been involved in a minor accident while driving home from work in Trenton: a speeding car, headed in her direction, suddenly veered over the yellow line and forced her off the road, so that she had cracked her head hard against the windshield and injured her eye. Somehow her seatbelt had come unbuckled. As all their friends have said, it’s lucky that Ruth is alive. . . Her right eye had flooded with blood, bleeding from the inside, she hadn’t been able to see out of it, but the damage wasn’t permanent and within a few days she seemed to be all right. Since then, however, Wyn has noticed her staring hard at things, staring at him, as if for the first time. He wonders how the world looks to her, after she nearly lost it. He wonders what it is she sees, that so entrances her.)

They are hiking gradually downhill. Wyn’s brother’s winterized cabin must be about a mile behind them; Wyn reasons that they can’t get lost. Though they are so clearly unaccustomed to this kind of activity, intruders, weekend tourists, in their expensive leather boots and sheepskin jackets and bright-colored woollen mufflers. And each is wearing a stylishly comic hat, which friends gave them for Christmas: Wyn’s in an English workingman’s cap in a particularly strident shade of mustard-green tweed; Ruth’s is a man’s bowler, deep maroon, with a pheasant feather stuck jauntily in the brim. (Ruth, who is slender, small-boned, with a very fair skin and wide-spaced gray eyes, sometimes complains that her “external self” misrepresents her—particularly so far as her professional competence is concerned. Wyn is so puzzled and disturbed by his own appearance—is he an attractive man, or aggressively ugly?—he couldn’t have said whether it represents him or not. In any case, who is “he” apart from that “external self”? In any case—isn’t he stuck with it? He recalls a proverb of Blake’s: If the Moon & Stars should doubt, they’d immediately go out.)

Ruth has discovered hoof prints at the edge of a field. And scattered bloodstains. Wyn tells her they were probably made by white-tailed deer—the deer must have cut their legs on the ice crust when their hooves broke through. “Hunting isn’t allowed at this time of year, is it?” Ruth asks anxiously, as if this has something to do with Wyn’s remark. Wyn tells her he doesn’t think so. But he goes on to say that deer are always in danger following an ice storm—or “silver storm,” as his people used to call it—because if they are chased by hunters their hooves may break through the glaze and cripple them. And if they’re chased by dogs—(Ruth makes a wincing gesture as if she doesn’t want to hear, but Wyn ignores it: this is testimony of a kind he’s giving, he’s rather proud of knowing what little country lore he knows.) If they’re chased by dogs they can be trapped or hobbled while the dogs, weighing less, can run on top of the ice, and rush at them in packs, and tear out their throats . . .

“But there aren’t wild dogs around here, in this part of New Jersey, are there?” Ruth asks, as if she has caught him out in a factual error.

“Domestic dogs run in packs too,” Wyn says.

They follow the bloodstained tracks along a drainage ditch glittering with ice. Every twig is glassy, every withered leaf from last autumn, even tiny beads of blood, gleaming, winking, near-blinding. Wyn’s heels frequently break through the glaze, throwing him off balance. He feels gigantic, ungainly, drunk on the painful air and the dazzling sunshine. He and Ruth have been married nearly twelve years and have slept together—can it be?—approximately four thousand nights. It makes him dizzy and for some reason slightly sickened to conjecture, even in the abstract, the number of times they have made love. Whereas with his lover . . .

Each time, each singular time, devastating and unforgettable. For it is Wyn behaving as “Wyn” cannot behave: “Wyn” who is in love with “Ruth.”

“This is a day when something unique should happen,” Wyn says carefully, watching Ruth’s back, watching the gay little pheasant feather quivering in the wind, “—something equal to this.”

But Ruth doesn’t reply, doesn’t seem even to have heard. Perhaps the remark is too fatuous.

Somehow it developed in their marriage, from the first, that Ruth is the more pragmatic person—the more direct and level-headed. Often, as if deliberately, she fails to take Wyn up on his speculations, though she surely knows that he is rather proud of his fanciful nature and his flair for words. Wasn’t classical philosophy Wyn’s first love? Metaphysics in particular? Wyn has worked as a lawyer, in recent years he has become involved in business, but the external circumstances of his life, he might argue, don’t truly represent him. He frequently wonders whether his wife and his friends know him at all. Is the universe one or many? Is time infinite or finite? Is “existence” an essential, or an accidental, quality?—are questions that continue to tease him, even to disturb him, though he knows their very language is nonsensical, and no contemporary philosopher could take them seriously.

Ruth can’t understand Wyn’s self-mocking yet altogether serious interest in such things. “You’re pretending, aren’t you? Admit it—you’re pretending,” she once said, discovering him hunched over his college paperback edition of Aristotle. Her manner was light, even gay, not at all jeering, and Wyn halfway capitulated: perhaps it is true, he’s only pretending, responding to a vague nostalgic sweep of emotions having to do with his adolescence, with unfulfilled yearnings and fantasies . . . He remembers with a queer mixture of chagrin and pride staying up all night reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. When his college roommate took the book forcibly away from him in the morning, his eyes were bloodshot and his hands were shaking. “But I want to find out how it ends!” Wyn protested.

The deer tracks are lost in a low-lying area stubbled with cattails and marsh grass. Wyn and Ruth pause, uncertain of where they are, which direction to take. “‘If the Moon & Stars should doubt, they’d immediately go out,’” Wyn sings. He rubs his gloved hands briskly together, seizes Ruth’s hand in his and rubs them even more vigorously. His breath is steaming, his pale blue eyes are bright. Ruth laughs but draws away from him: sometimes, for no clear reason, Wyn becomes excited, talks more and more quickly, his face flushed, his words distinctly and formally enunciated. At such times, as his friends have notes, the perplexing thing isn’t that Wyn has lost control but that he’s so expansively, so defiantly, in control.

“In any case we aren’t lost,” Wyn says. “‘Lost’ is only a state of mind.”

They decide to cross the marshy field and skirt and a small woods, the pond is probably on the other side, very near, and Wyn suddenly remembers a road, a road with a particular name, “Fifth Concession,” or something like that, which intersects with the road their cabin is on. He helps Ruth over a part-collapsed barbed wire fence and marvels at her lightness, her grace. Does he know her, really? This woman in the oversized sunglasses and the pert bowler hat? “Careful,” he says, “Don’t hurt yourself—” but she has already jumped down. In turn she raises her hand for him to grasp and he finds himself gripped it hard, his knees suddenly trembling as he climbs over the fence, his weight oppressive. He feels out of scale—he feels a drunkard’s sense of precariousness and gaiety. Last night, drinking champagne, he gauged the slow-ascending stages of getting high, getting mildly and pleasurably intoxicated, and knew that all of his life lay before him: the universe was both one and many, time was both infinite and finite, his “existence” was a miracle because it was both essential and accidental . . . A woman has said he is beautiful: that strong blunt face, that shy body. No doubt she lied. Oh yes no doubt. But if she continues to lie with such girlish vehemence—!

Suddenly Wyn is radiant with certainty and daring. He’s suffused with energy. No matter if, in recent years, he has grown cautious about playing basketball and touch football with his friends—no matter if he’s slightly hung—over from New Year’s Eve and his nose is running and he’s secretly envious of his wife’s career. He surprises Ruth by hugging her, kissing her roughly on the cheek, cavorting across the field of ice like a clown. What high spirits! What elation! He waves his arms and brings his heels down hard, breaking ice, crashing about, making a glorious staccato noise like gunfire.

Ruth, staring, calls out to him to stop. Is he crazy, what if he slips and breaks a leg, what if he breaks his neck . . . But she’s laughing too. She can’t resist. Wyn is a character, she’s never met anyone quite like him, she’s never known exactly what to think of him in all their years together.

There, suddenly, bounding about like a child, is her dignified thirty-nine-year old “management-consultant” husband. He’s flapping his arms, he tosses his mustard-green cap, that wonderfully ugly cap, high into the air.

“It’s the first day of the year!” Wyn announces. “It’s the first day of Creation!”

Once, shortly after they had both graduated from law school, Wyn said: “I want to contain multitudes. I’m sure I do contain multitudes like old Walt Whitman. I want to know everything and feel everything, I want to be a cross section of my generation, I want to eavesdrop, I want to speak in many tongues, I want to be here but also there. Oh brave new Wyn, with such modest ambitions—!”

He drank a toast to himself, draining a glass of red wine, and all their friends applauded loudly and drank along with him. Except Ruth, then his bride of less than a year. She may have smiled uncertainly, and looked aside, as if she should be embarrassed . . .

Wyn tells his lover all sorts of things: lies mixed with the truth, the truth mixed with lies. He’s gay, giddy, delirious with hope, sick with apprehension. He has never been unfaithful to his wife in twelve years of marriage. He doesn’t really know how to be “unfaithful” to his wife: is there a code, a set or rules, an elaborate protocol?

He tells his lover that Ruth has turned out to be an excellent lawyer. Far better (he cheerfully admits) than he was. She’s shrewd, unsentimental, tireless, pitiless, he says, though it isn’t the entire truth: he doesn’t tell her, for instance, of the evenings Ruth comes home too exhausted to eat dinner, needing to lie in his arms on top of their bed, half-sobbing with frustration and anger and disappointment.

It’s remarkable too, Wyn says, grinding his teeth as he lies, as he improvises, as he snatches at fragments of the truth,— remarkable too how unimaginative she is. How undistracted by fancy. He asks her (for instance) if she has been having a nightmare, since she’s been muttering and whimpering in her sleep, squirming about, perspiring, and Ruth assures him, her gray eyes opened wide, that she hasn’t dreamt at all.

“I never dream,” she says.

Wyn lies wildly in the hope of stumbling upon a single truth. He invents, dreading the likelihood that he isn’t inventing at all. He has told his lover (for instance) that he’s lonely in his marriage—he’s lonely because he is married. And it’s true, though it’s also a lie, because he seems to have been married all his life and has nothing to compare his present circumstances with.

I dream constantly,” he says. It is either a boast or a plea.

* * *

At a friend’s house in Princeton, on Christmas Day of all days, Wyn seems to have misbehaved. A single drink and he began to talk too ebulliently and expansively, dominating the conversation, interrupting, quarrelling, boasting . . . Afterward friends telephoned to ask Ruth if Wyn was “all right.”

Wyn, deeply ashamed, slipped the telephone receiver back into its cradle before he could hear his wife’s answer.

Wyn has been going through a phase of some kind, as his closest friends have noted with sympathy. But they can’t agree precisely when it began. Some argue that it obviously began when he quit the law firm in New York for which he’d worked, and did nothing (evidently) for six or eight months; then took a position with a “management consultant” company in Princeton. (Precisely what Wyn does no one knows or wants to ask. Half-seriously, he said had quit his New York job because he was tired of commuting back and forth from Princeton: and tired too, permanently tired, of The Law.) Other friends argue that his difficulties began earlier, when Ruth took a job with a government agency in Trenton, and started to work full time. Then again, Wyn’s quirkiness might be attributed to the fact that he had graduated at the top of his class from college: and such excellent things had been predicted for him. Or might it have been even earlier . . .?

Like many residents of Princeton Wyn helplessly reviews his vita at odd, capricious, vulnerable hours. He must justify himself to himself even if no one else cares. He must add up columns of himself in his head, wincing and grimacing. He must ponder, weigh, assess, pass judgment . . .(The management consultant job might, in fact, turn out well. Very well indeed. So far as salary and benefits are concerned. And Wyn has been offered an adjunct position at the University, teaching a course in the history of American law—a job he declined with regret, though the position would not have been permanent and the salary was, as his pride instructed him, unexceptional.) In his fortieth year Wyn is still waiting for the ideal work, the perfect mode of employment, in which the secret resources of his soul will be tapped; and his worldly income will be in proportion to his uniqueness.

Sometimes Wyn blames Princeton for his problems, or, at any rate, for the scale and texture of his problems. It isn’t an environment, as everyone freely acknowledges, hospital to failure, even failure disguised as “success.” It isn’t an environment hospitalable to uniqueness when virtually everyone is unique, or was once heralded as such. Once Wyn said bitterly, “It’s just as well we never had children, they’d be devoured by all this anxiety and competition,” and Ruth stared at him, hurt and puzzled, and said: “But we might have children yet, why do you speak as if it’s all in the past—?”

Wyn is so deeply embarrassed about his behavior on Christmas Day he can’t bring himself to ask Ruth exactly what happened. He knows only that he drank too much and talked too much and made a fool of himself and upset his wife and his friends, his oldest friends . . . The problem is, he’s so seasoned a raconteur, so engaging and unfailingly interesting, people willingly sit back to hear him talk, and over the years he has become spoiled. And why doesn’t Ruth intervene, why does she sit staring into space with that small pained abstract smile of hers . . .?

Somehow it came about that Wyn disagreed with another guest, a woman, a feminist lawyer, over a variety of trivial issues. It wasn’t even clear afterward what they were talking about. But suddenly Wyn challenged the woman in a somewhat haughty voice, and they quarrelled, and Wyn simply browbeat her into submission, making his points in a flamboyant and over-emphatic manner, and then launching onto other subjects as if he couldn’t control the inspired drift of his thinking.

The feminist lawyer, Frances, an acquaintance of Ruth’s, a writer and lecturer and the most “famous” member of the circle, flushed with anger, and shifted about restlessly in her chair, and gave up trying to interrupt Wyn’s monologue. Clearly it was impossible, what else could she do other than go home? A wiry, sinewy, angular woman in her mid-thirties, with an air of being a decade older; impatient, usually contentious; known for the razorish edge to her voice and her cutting sarcasm: it is Frances’s habit to dominate most groups she finds herself in, since she speaks without hesitation and has any number of statistics and quotations memorized. In her imagination all facets of life are politicized. Domestic relations, marriage, the “nuclear family,” “romantic conceptions of love” . . . She is also an amateur-expert on abortion, contraception, female suffering throughout the ages, she has been known to reduce a festive dinner party to abashed silence by discussing, in detail, outrageous crimes perpetrated against women in all parts of the world. Since Frances is certainly more knowledgeable than most people, why not allow her to dominate?—she’s a remarkable person, admired if not generally liked.

Yet, somehow, Wyn managed to intimidate Frances. He was quick to supply factual information, quick to correct her, agile as a courtroom attorney performing a brilliant cross-examination. He was even able to stir laugher at her expense: a cheap trick, and one unworthy of him. His words came fluently, effortlessly, as if he were in perfect control, until, abruptly, he lapsed into a sort of manic fugue-state-making impassioned gestures, smiling, frowning, winking, cutting off opposition before anyone could speak. A fine film of perspiration gleamed on his forehead, his posture was rigid and erect. He spoke of Henry David Thoreau who had been born David Henry Thoreau and was “self-baptized” by changing his name. He spoke of Walt Whitman who had been born Walter Whitman. And then the subject was famous hoaxes: he seemed to know engaging facts about Vortigern and Rowena, a “lost” play of Shakespeare’s; and Sir John Herschel’s playful sighting of life on the moon, in the 1830’s; and the fabrication of Piltdown Man—one of the most ingenious pranks of all time. And didn’t the very concept of a social personality—a single “personality”—necessitate subterfuge, hypocrisy, hoaxing?

After a while Wyn picked up, from Ruth, a sense of his bad manners and misjudgment. He grew visibly deflated, his voice began to wind down. He said, reaching out to clasp Ruth’s hand, that the secret underlying marriage as a social contract is that it keeps men and women honest. When they make egregious asses of themselves they can’t not know because there is always one person to tell them, if only by a quizzical arching of the eyebrow. “Which is why Ruth and I will soon be celebrating our twelfth anniversary,” Wyn said. “Which is why we were fated for each other and will never separate.”

Tears sprang into his eyes, startling everyone.

No one knew where to look, or what to say. In another room their hosts’ children, laughing, sounded faintly contemptuous and mocking—though of course they weren’t listening. They hadn’t the slightest interest in their parents’ friends.

* * *

Tears streaming down his face, Wyn hugs himself and rocks from side to side. No one observes. No one is a witness.

He will tell his lover that it is all a mistake: he doesn’t love her because he doesn’t love anyone.

He will tell his lover that she is the salvation of his life: he loves her because he cannot love Ruth.

He will make a little speech to her, lying in his arms. Her warm greedy arms. “Once I thought the greatest of mysteries lay in the spirit. But now I think it lies in the flesh. In heavy, blood-heavy, meaty flesh. The greatest of mysteries . . .”

He will utter such lines, such improvisations. You’re pretending, aren’t you? Ruth has said. Admit it—you’re pretending.

Wyn, weeping, awaiting the perfect moment. And then all will become clear to him. And then he will know what he must do.

* * *

It is past noon of New Year’s Day, nearing twelve-thirty, the winter sun has already begun to slant in the sky, and Wyn finally admits, with an irritated embarrassed laugh, that he can’t find that pond after all. That idyllic lake-sized pond he remembers, or believes he remembers, from two summers ago. But they aren’t lost. They have only to retrace their steps.

Ruth laughs at his discomfort. She stands on tiptoe and adjusts his cap on his head. “You can’t bear to be wrong, can you?” she teases.

The world is still winking and glittering with ice. All crystalline surfaces, ready to snap. Wyn laughs readily, his mood is still high and expansive. “In what way am I wrong?” he asks innocently. “We aren’t lost.”

They conscientiously follow their footprints back toward the house, Wyn’s footprints mainly because his made the deeper impressions. In certain stretches both pairs of prints are clearly visible, though enlarged, as if beginning just slightly to melt. Wyn recalls—he doesn’t know why—a romantic night he and Ruth spent in a borrowed cottage in the Catskills, many years ago. They were young lovers then, shy of each other, passionate and tender. Much of the night they lay awake in each other’s arms listening to fine, soft, near-inaudible raindrops falling on the roof, or so it seemed. A soothing mesmerizing sound. An unforgettable sound. But in the morning they discovered that it hadn’t rained at all. The sound they had been hearing was the feeding of gypsy-moth larvae everywhere about the cottage, overhead the trees. If Wyn shuts his eyes and concentrates he can hear it still . . .

They are less than a quarter-mile from the cabin when several dogs appear at the edge of a field. When they sight Wyn and Ruth they freeze; then, after a moment, begin to trot in their direction. Wyn whispers to Ruth not to be frightened—he knows she is afraid of dogs, even the dogs owned by their friends. Ruth says nothing but falls slightly behind him, at his left elbow.

Wyn sees that the dogs aren’t wild, two of them are wearing collars, one is a handsome German shepherd with a wonderfully burnish coat, gray, silver-gray, russet, flecks of black. Wyn calls out a cheery greeting to the German shepherd—the obvious leader of the little pack—but the dog doesn’t respond. Two mongrel Labradors begin to bark frantically, a thick-chested hound with pale matted hair and mean little eyes begins to snarl, and suddenly the German shepherd is barking too, loudly, stupidly, baring his teeth and laying back his ears. Wyn continues to address the dogs in a friendly cajoling voice, the voice of a man who has always been able to charm dogs, while Ruth grips his arm and leans against him. He tries to shield her as much as he can: he tells her not to panic, it will only make the situation worse, the dogs can sense her reaction. In another minute they will trot away, they aren’t wild beasts after all, they can’t be ravenous with hunger, or vicious . . .

But suddenly, with no provocation, the German shepherd rushes at Wyn and all the dogs lunge forward, barking crazily. Ruth screams, Wyn finds himself shouting angrily and making swiping gestures with his fists. Even as the shepherd sinks his teeth in Wyn’s wrist he tells himself this can’t be happening. They are so close to the house, and dogs have always liked him . . . he is a man who has always been able to charm dogs . . .

In all the attack probably lasts less than a minute, though of course it seems much longer. Wyn’s single clear thought is to protect Ruth, who is clutching helplessly at his arm, in fact he’s propelled into a fury of his own, that she has been so badly frightened. He shouts, claps his hands, kicks at the dogs, tries to strike them with his fists, no matter how his left wrist is bleeding. He doesn’t feel any pain and afterward it will strike him as remarkable, that he hadn’t even felt any particular fear. Only rage, a sudden physical rage. His heart had flooded with rage.

In his frenzy Wyn manages to beat the dogs back, or anyway to intimidate them, for, just as abruptly as they began their attack they retreat, and trot away snarling into the woods; and the extraordinary incident is over.

Wyn and Ruth stare after them, too astonished to speak. They are both trembling—both in a mild state of shock. Veins stand out luridly on Wyn’s forehead, his body is soaked in sweat inside his heavy clothing, he feels his heart swinging violently from side to side. Is he going to have a heart attack? Is he going to collapse? For a long terrifying moment his vision darkens, he sees only winking lights, everything solid has vanished and he is certain he will lose consciousness.

But that moment too passes. The dogs are really gone, the danger is over, the sun-dazzled landscape has been returned to them unchanged.

Wyn is convinced that one of the dogs bit Ruth, he knows he saw teeth sinking into her flesh, he knows he saw blood, but in fact it is his own wrist that is bleeding: he stares at it in astonishment. The wound is fairly superficial but it is a wound, blood has been soaking into the sleeve of his jacket and dotting the snow, and now he is starting to feel pain, sudden piercing flashes of pain, the real thing, while Ruth fusses over him. “But you much be hurt too,” Wyn insists, confused. “You must be bleeding too . . .”

The sudden pain, the shock of blood, the cast flood of physical relief that is still streaming through his body make Wyn radiant. He stares at Ruth, he smiles strangely, his face is radiant, though he cannot say why.

* * *

Ruth washes Wyn’s wrist and hand tenderly, and wraps the wound in gauze. “You’ll have to have a rabies shot,” she says.

“Like hell I do,” Wyn says angrily.

Since the weekend has been spoiled, since they’ll be able to talk about nothing else except the wretched dogs, Wyn and Ruth decide to leave the Water Gap that afternoon instead of staying overnight. It takes them hours to recover from the shock: halfway back to Princeton they are still trembling, shivering, weak in the knees, slightly nauseated. Ruth even imagines that her eye has started to ache.

They stop for an early dinner at a roadside restaurant on highway 206, an inelegant place decorated in tinsel, wilted poinsettias, and brightly synthetic “greens.” They tell each other they aren’t hungry and probably won’t be able to eat very much, but once their meals are brought they discover that they are both very hungry. In fact they are ravenously hungry.

Now, and now, and now, Wyn thinks, staring at his wife,—perfect moments. He says nothing, however. The suddenness of his appetite is surprising. Ruth too eats heartily, happily, pressing a tissue against her watering eye.

Joyce Carol Oates has published more than seventy books. She is currently the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University. (updated 6/2010)


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