Alaska Shorts: “Cold Comfort,” excerpted from Cold Spell by Deb Vanasse

Mass Balance
The sum of
accumulation and loss
IN THE MINERVA Jones Bible Study, shapes sliced through
God’s word like cookies cut from dough. Squiggly lines for actions. Rectangles
for results. You yourself got a star, while God, three in one, was contained in
a triangle. A short, chipmunk-faced woman, Minerva wore at her neck a bright
orange scarf that fluttered as she click-clacked in high heels across the video
screen. You had only to apply the right shapes, Minerva promised, and every
truth of God would come clear.
If Minerva Jones were to step out from the screen, Lena
would suggest she take a load off, the way she herself did every morning,
settling into the wide, creaky-springed chair in her bedroom, her leather-bound
Bible winged across her lap. Most mornings, a wisp of steam would rise from her
coffee, folding and unfolding on itself like the northern lights that shifted
across a winter sky, confounding the whole notion of shape.
Once the steam disappeared, Lena’s coffee would be the right
temperature to drink, neither too hot nor too cold. In her last video lesson,
Minerva had applied triangles, rectangles, squiggles, and stars to show how
Jesus despised the lukewarm. Given the Lord’s preference for extremes — hot or
cold — Lena suspected the glacier would suit him fine. She pictured Jesus up on
the ice, which she could see from her window, white on white, a study in peace
and cold and proportion.
Minerva, however, would put the glacier in a box shape. Who
needed ice when a whole world, an entire universe even, was contained in the
book that rested across Lena’s lap? Minerva Jones was the sort of woman Lena
should want for her boys, a Proverbs 31 woman, of noble character, blessed with
eager hands that brought food from afar, a woman who laughed at the days to
In her workbook, Lena copied verses from the thirty-first
chapter of Proverbs, squiggling purple lines under the bringing and laughing
and spinning and sewing done by a woman of honor. From a clutch of colored
pencils, she chose a red one to box in the results, as Minerva directed: a
little rectangle each to contain confidence,
blessings, praise.
Still, Lena wasn’t convinced. The women she actually
hoped for, for her sons, were women like Darla — funny, irreverent Darla, who
didn’t have to sit in a special chair, the way Lena did, to recall who she was,
beneath what everyone expected of her.
With a blue pencil, Lena attacked a verse out of Psalms: I sought the Lord, and He heard me, and
delivered me from my fears
. Dutifully, she formed red boxes and purple
triangles and green stars and blue squiggles. But the shapes failed to make
clear how the Lord could hear someone seeking, or how fear might be delivered,
wrapped up like a package. These were Lena’s chair-thoughts, reflections on the
ways God made no sense.
Her habit was to displace these blasphemies by reflecting on
memories of small things: A ladybug creeping up a thin blade of grass, its
dotted wings a curved, protective shell. The tiny fingernail of a newborn
child, thin and translucent. The gentle, rolling laughter of Lena’s sister,
Judy, before the river swept her away.

At the familiar creak of
the front door, Lena skewed her chair away from the window. After thirty-eight
years, she’d grown large with the ice, and in certain ways, cold. She envied
how the glacier sat, barely moving, day in and day out. She shut her Bible and
pushed herself out of her chair. 

At age twenty-one, our very own Deb Vanasse was dropped by a bush pilot
on a gravel runway in middle of the Alaska wilderness. No roads, no houses, no
cars, no people — only a winding brown slough and tundra spread flat as
prairie. She had come not for adventure but to live, an isolating but evocative
experience that has inspired many of her sixteen books. Between her mountain home
and a glacier-based cabin, she continues to enjoy Alaska’s wild places. Library Journal calls her “one of Alaska’s
leading storytellers.”

“Grabs you from the opening line and won’t let go,” says Publishers Weekly of Vanasse’s novel Cold Spell. From that novel, Lena Preston has
proven a favorite among readers. Decades ago, she and her husband Walter
homesteaded near Alaska’s Resurrection Glacier, tying up access so that those
who want to see the ice up close must pay a fee to travel past the Prestons’ gift
shop and through their campground.

In Cold Spell,
each chapter is titled after an aspect of glaciers. Although Lena plays an
integral role in the novel, chapters from her point of view were cut from the
final version. Featured here is one of those chapters, “Mass Balance.” To read more of the excerpt, download a free copy of the Alaska Sampler 2015.

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