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In the Midst of Winter
Author:Isabel Allende

In the Midst of Winter

Isabel Allende

To Roger Cukras, for unexpected love

Au milieu de l’hiver, j’apprenais enfin qu’il y avait en moi un été invincible.


   In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer.


Brooklyn, New York, 2016

At the end of December 2015 winter had not yet reached Brooklyn. As Christmas approached with its jangle of bells, people were still in short sleeves and sandals, some of them celebrating nature’s oversight and others fearing global warming, while to the confusion of squirrels and birds, artificial trees sprinkled with silver frost appeared in house windows. Three weeks after New Year’s Day, when no one gave any further thought to how out of step the calendar was, nature suddenly awoke from its fall torpor and unleashed the worst snowstorm in living memory.

Lucia Maraz was cursing the cold in her Prospect Heights basement apartment, a cement-and-brick cave with a mountain of snow blocking the doorway. Blessed with the stoic character of her people, accustomed as they are to earthquakes, floods, occasional tsunamis, and political cataclysms, she grew worried if no disaster occurred within a given length of time. Yet she was unprepared for this Siberian winter that seemed to have struck Brooklyn in error. Storms in Chile are limited to the Andes Mountains and the deep south of Tierra del Fuego, where the continent crumbles into islands torn to shreds by the austral wind, where ice splits bones and life is brutal. Lucia was from Santiago, undeservedly renowned for its benign climate, although its winters are damp and cold, its summers hot and dry. The capital lies nestled among purple mountains that at dawn are sometimes covered in snow, and then the purest light on earth is reflected from their dazzling peaks. On very rare occasions a sad, pale dusting falls over the city like ashes, never managing to turn the urban landscape white before melting into dirty slush. Snow is always pristine from a distance.

In Lucia’s Brooklyn cave, largely below street level and with poor heating, snow was a nightmare. The frost-covered glass impeded light from entering through the small window, and the inside gloom was hardly dispelled by the naked bulbs dangling from the ceiling. The apartment contained only the essentials: a jumble of shabby second-or thirdhand furniture and a few kitchen utensils. Richard Bowmaster, the owner, was not interested in either decor or comfort.

The storm began on Friday with a heavy snowfall followed by a fierce squall that lashed the nearly deserted streets. The force of the wind caused trees to bend and the freezing weather killed many birds who had forgotten to migrate, fooled by the previous month’s warmth. When the cleanup operation began, sanitation trucks carted away frozen sparrows along with the scattered debris. However, the mysterious parakeets in Green-Wood Cemetery survived the blizzard, as was confirmed three days later, when they reappeared intact, pecking for crumbs among the gravestones. On Thursday, television reporters with funereal expressions and the solemn tone usually reserved for news about terrorism in far-off countries had predicted the upcoming storm as well as dire consequences for the weekend. A state of emergency was declared in New York, and the dean at NYU, where Lucia worked, had heeded the warning, informing all faculty that Friday classes were canceled. It would have been an adventure to reach Manhattan in any case.

LUCIA TOOK ADVANTAGE of that day’s unexpected freedom to prepare a life-restoring cazuela, a Chilean soup that lifts downhearted spirits and sick bodies. By now she had been in the United States more than four months, eating mostly at the university cafeteria and with no reason to cook for herself except on a couple of occasions when she did so out of nostalgia or to celebrate a friendship. For this traditional dish she made a hearty, well-seasoned stock; she fried onion and meat, cooked vegetables, potatoes, and pumpkin separately, and finally added rice. Although she used all the pots in the kitchen and it looked as if a bomb had exploded there, the result was well worth it. For it dispelled the feeling of loneliness that had overwhelmed her since the storm began. That loneliness, which in the past used to arrive unannounced like an unwelcome visitor, had now been relegated to a distant corner of her mind.

That night, as the wind roared outside, whipping up the snow and filtering in impudently through the chinks, she felt a visceral childhood dread. She knew she was safe in her cave, that her fear of the elements was absurd, and that there was no cause to disturb Richard, apart from the fact that he was the only person she could turn to in circumstances like this, because he lived on the floor above. At nine in the evening she gave in to her need to hear a human voice and phoned him.

“What are you doing?” she asked, trying to conceal her apprehension.

“Playing the piano. Is the noise disturbing you?”

“I can’t hear your piano. The only noise down here is the crash of the end of the world. Is this normal here in Brooklyn?”

“There’s bad weather every so often in winter, Lucia.”

“I’m scared.”

“What of?”

“Just scared, nothing specific. I guess it would be stupid to ask you to come and keep me company for a while. I made a Chilean soup.”

“Is it vegetarian?”

“No. Well, never mind, Richard. Good night.”

“Good night.”

She drank a shot of pisco and buried her head beneath her pillow. She slept badly, waking up every half hour with the same fragmented dream about being shipwrecked in a substance as thick and sour as yogurt.

BY SATURDAY THE STORM had continued on its raging path toward the Atlantic, but the weather in Brooklyn remained cold and snowy. Lucia did not want to venture out as many streets were still blocked, although efforts to clear them had begun at first light. She would have plenty of time to read and prepare her classes for the coming week. On the news she saw that the storm continued wreaking havoc wherever it went. She was pleased at the prospect of some peace, a good novel, and a rest. Eventually someone would come and clear the snow from her door. That would be no problem, the neighborhood kids were already out offering to work for a few dollars. Lucia appreciated her good fortune, realizing she felt at ease living in this inhospitable Prospect Heights cave, which wasn’t so bad after all.