Lawrence pulled into a side-cut and the squeak of tires in cold packed snow lowered in pitch, then stopped. He shut off the engine. All around them the late morning sun reflected from hummocks of crystal and filled the little canyon with brilliance. Below them a stream threaded its way plainward between thickets and bluffs, its water still beneath icy meanders. Black pines swarmed up the hillside beyond the stream, festooned with mantles of snow. Elizabeth looked at him and smiled
“Hungry yet?” he asked her.
“Let’s walk first.”
He stepped out and caught his breath in the cold air, trudged through the snow past the crackling engine and helped her out of the car. Her body glowed warm through her jacket. Her yarny ski cap tassel tickled his jaw. She took his hand and they swung off uphill along the crisp, indented road.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “You weren’t going to do this.”
“I wasn’t. That’s true.”
“You explained very carefully why you wouldn’t.”
“I meant it.”
“Then why is it happening?”
“A paradox.” He stopped and looked at her for a moment. “The snow makes your cheeks red.” They walked on, silent except for their squeaking footsteps. A flight of crows flapped upward like sparks from the canyon wall, crossed the stream, and came to rest querulous and gabbling in a stark poplar ahead of them.
“Caw,” Lawrence said, accurately mimicking a crow.
“Caw, caw, caw,” the crows said. One flapped out of the tree, flew upward in graceful circles for a minute and coasted back to rest, lustrous and blue-black.
“Where did you learn to do that?” she asked.
“I was a crow once. I wasn’t always a boy.”
“You aren’t a boy now. You’re a man. That’s one of the things I like best about you.”
“No,” he said. “I’m a boy.”
Her giggle shimmered across the canyon. “Only sometimes. Like now.”
“Always. Sometimes I pretend to be a man.” Suddenly he cawed wildly at the crows. They cried in alarm and spiraled upward like black leaves caught in a whirlwind.
“What did you tell them?”
“That the sky is falling.”
“But it isn’t. There’s not a single cloud.”
“That’s no guarantee.”
“Do you think the sky will fall? Because of what you’re doing?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see.” She took his hand and they scrambled down the hillside toward the stream, wallowing in deep snow before they emerged on the main road. They stopped while he brushed the snow from her ski pants.
“Do we dare to have a day like this?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What if I fall in love with you?”
“You mustn’t. It’s not allowed.” He stood up. “Not for either of us.”
“You won’t. You love your wife. Very much. You told me that. I believe it. I can see it.”
“That’s true. It’s another paradox. Everything true is a paradox. Here in the snow with the sun shining, I love you.”
“But it’s a different kind of love.”
“No. Except for this minute love is always a memory or an expectation.” They walked toward the stream hand in hand. “If the snow were warm maybe I’d push you down in it.”
She stopped and looked at him again, half-smiling. “No closeness,” she quoted. “No situations that can lead to. . . this. Always a crowd. I was surprised when you called me this morning.”
“So was I.” He looked back at the car, small and far away down the slope, bright blue in a field of white. “I was surprised when you said you’d go.”
She crouched to touch a tender shoot growing out of the snow. “You shouldn’t have been.”
“Maybe I hoped you’d say no.”
“Did you think it would be that easy?”
He lifted her to her feet and they went on toward the stream. “The sun was shining. I had to come here today. I didn’t want to come alone.”
She squeezed his hand. “You need to go home to your wife. This job of yours — it isn’t worth it.” She stopped him. “Listen!” There was a small sound of water coursing under the ice. She let go his hand and stepped out onto the ice-covered stream.
“Careful,” he said.
“If the ice breaks I’ll have to rescue you.”
“No. It can’t be like that.” She stood in the middle of the stream, looking back at him, breathing succulent steam into the sunlight. “There’s a woman. . . waiting for you. She has everything. I have nothing.”
“Except for this. Here. Now.”
“No status.” She turned, came back carefully over the ice, and folded herself in his arms. “It’s stupid,” she said.
“A man should be allowed to have two wives.”
“Three?” he asked.
“Maybe. . . If he’s a man.”
“No.” He kissed her cold, steamy lips.
“Someday, when you’re married. . . if you’ve married happily, you’ll know why.”
“I’m tired of boys — pretending to be men. That’s why I said yes. Today I wanted to be with a man. I wanted to be with you.”
They went back to the car and ate their picnic lunch. Their breath frosted the windows and they giggled like children playing house beneath a tent of sheets. She fed him: cheese and bread, bananas and wine, brushing his lips with careless, frosty fingers, laughing at him, budding with promise, a summer of orchards.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Why not what?”
“Why not two wives? You can love more than one person.” She leaned against the door and watched his face. “Out there. . . you said, ‘I love you.’”
“I do. I loved you the minute I saw you.”
“Then why not?”
“I love Renoir’s bathers, and Degas’s dancers, and the taste of fresh cherries, and the smell of peas being shelled.”
“You mean you don’t love me enough.”
“How much is enough?”
“As much as you love your wife.”
“I can’t weigh love in my hand.”
Her eyes sparkled at him, teasingly. “Besides, you can’t have two wives. . . or three. Or four.”
He cleared a spot on the window with the warmth of his hand and peered out at the valley.
“But you can have a mistress. You could push me down in the snow.”
The crows circled the valley: winged motes of life, searching. “Yes,” he said. “I thought of that.”
“Did you think of it this morning when you called me?”
“What did you decide?”
“I’m not sure.”
She put the back of her hand against his cheek. “Are you afraid?”
“Yes. Aren’t you?”
“Yes.” She moved her fingers to his lips and traced them. “I’m afraid, but it doesn’t matter. If anything happens I’ll. . . It’ll be all right.”
The crows were gone from the sky, hiding like secrets in a distant tree. He turned around and looked into her face. “I wasn’t being honest when I talked about paintings. You’re not a painting. You’re a woman.”
“And the rest?”
“The rest was true.”
“That makes it harder, doesn’t it?”
“Yes.” He caught her fingers and kissed them. Her hand smelled of snow and fruit. “If anything happened, it wouldn’t be all right.”
“You’re being Victorian. You’re saying I’m too pure to do something like that.”
“No,” he said.
“That you wouldn’t respect me, then, if I were a loose woman.”
“Not either of those things.”
She laughed. “I’m being hard on you, aren’t I? A woman scorned.”
“I haven’t scorned you.”
She began to pack the remnants of their lunch. “But you’re going to. You’re not going to push me down in the snow.”
“This morning you decided you would. Before you called me.”
“Yes,” he said. “I was wrong.”
She leaned against the door again and looked at him. “Now you’re going to tell me something like. . . ‘We can still be friends.’”
“Yes,” she said, finally, moving closer to him. “Yes. We’re still friends.”
He started the engine and they drove down the valley through the afternoon sun. Outside, the snow was melting. Farther down, the meadows were turning green.