Title: Relic of Tough Weather
Summary: "It is a real chill out. The fall crisp comes."
Thank You: Liza and Shari, for quick reads and kindness
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
Mulder strokes the remote absently. The television adjacent to him bleats breaking news of soldiers who drowned in their ivory stiff uniforms somewhere off the eastern coast of northern Canada. A deep-voiced narrator feigns concern that these men gained their watery graves under mysterious circumstances. The ship has disintegrated into a slushy shock of rust. The ocean seethes with ice.
His hands are old again, the snowglobe has melted.
Scully is writing, chronicling this dying that loiters, somehow ceaseless. Her thoughts smooth over him; she is a child of this sea, and she accepts its cycle. She writes to her father, her pen scritching. She writes until the ink streaks off the bottom of the page. She presses her fingers to Mulder's temple and shows him the letter. She has drawn a harbor.
A Captain he recognizes by deduction, not by memory, stands behind the microphones at the press conference, holds his hat in his hand and quotes Melville, sometimes salutes the soldiers who were saved. It seems appropriate, sufficient, and the voiceless reporters nod obediently. The soldiers slap the Captain on the back, their shaky fingers red with worry. He has saved them and they are grateful. They leave, they all leave, humbled by his bravery.
Mulder is humbled too.
The Captain, a massive man of muscle and unchipped wisdom, tumbles off the podium and Mulder scrambles to help him stand, pulling him by one arm. The Captain thanks him for the help.
"At ease." He readjusts his cap. Mulder blinks at him from the hospital bed, another hospital bed, another goddamned bleach-soaked bed with a scratchy blanket and a mattress with a wadded lump in the center. "Long winter ahead. When you get out of here, make sure she wears a coat."
Mulder shrugs out of his jacket and wraps her in it. She tips his chin up and points. "Not bad," she says, admiring the view above them, "your galaxy." They stare up at the stars until the sky is corroded by clouds, scarred with sand. The grit is ironed, melted to glassine tear drops, a spell on her lips, tracing his eyes open.
Mulder wakes from the nap and rolls over to face the television whose screen is vacant, unprickled by rapid-fire images. He can hear the oven click in the kitchen as the electric coils temper their own heat. The thick scent of imitation spice produces luxurious desires as rich as heavy cream and sugar. His stomach grumbles.
The once-frozen filling swirls volcanic in its crumbling shell, crust burning brown on one edge. He rotates the aluminum-panned pumpkin pie on the metal rack; he is relatively certain there is a good reason for the revolution, but home economics was not a subject with which he concerned himself much, and he has been a bachelor for more years than have passed since junior high.
He feels gangly, immature, his thoughts drifting in the remnant of the dream. He considers calling her; reconsiders on the chance that someone other than her will answer the phone.
Through the window, Thanksgiving's horizon is hollow gray. He hopes the lit candles inside Margaret Scully's home right now immerse her children and grandchildren in the roseate shades of dusk, the intimate aura of families. However, he likes the tarnished temperature, the brash sleet that has begun to patter like metal shavings against the windowsill. These pewter clouds seem custom-made for him.
He will go outside for a minute and let the ice slivers liquefy in his palms, let the sweet chill seep and quiet his mind. He does not miss Scully today. Not even a little.
Mrs. Pater is putting out turkey skin scraps for the poodle she's tied to her exterior doorknob. "Scruffy!" she scolds. "Leave Mr. Mulder alone." The miniature groomed puppy yips.
"When did you get a dog?" Mulder asks. He tucks his newspaper under one arm and pets Scruffy, whose fur feels like a well-used steel pad.
"He's our daughter's. Mariam came home for the holiday. First time in nineteen years." Mrs. Pater looks entirely pleased. She smiles and wipes her hands with a wet dishcloth. "She's usually so busy during these last two months of the year, with the flower shop and all."
"Sure," Mulder says, though he only vaguely recollects Mrs. Pater ever mentioning Mariam. The other daughter, a cop, is a well-discussed topic. Mrs. Pater had her daughters very late in life. She has yet to recover from the trauma of two ill-timed children.
"The dog's going back to the hotel in a few minutes. Leonard can't stand dogs." Her expression quickens. "But he's so glad to see Mariam, now that-- Well." She smiles tightly.
Leonard is sitting at his dinner table inside an apartment one room smaller than Mulder's. He is eating his meal as though it may be his final one. His voice is loud and ill through the half-opened door. He does not sound like a man bidding the world a serene farewell. "Tell the kid to come in and have a drink, Louise."
"Oh! Are you eating alone today, Mr. Mulder?" Mrs. Pater asks solicitously, horrified by her own conclusion.
Mulder shifts the newspaper. "Yeah. But it's no big deal." He says it even as he sees the wince cross Mrs. Pater's eyes.
"At least let us give you a slice of pumpkin pie."
"No, no, thank you. There's one baking upstairs right now. It was good to see you again, Mrs. Pater. Don't be a stranger in the laundry room." He steps away, grinning in a way he hopes is irresistible, though he will settle for appearing innocuous. Normal.
"Well, come back by sometime tomorrow and I'll give you some leftovers. We always have so much it's embarrassing."
"Thank you, I'll keep you in mind. Say hello to Mariam."
"We're so glad she's here," Mrs. Pater repeats, her eyes rainy green. "She has always adored her father, just adored him." Mulder stops shuffling backwards. Mrs. Pater pulls the door almost closed behind her. She bends down to pet Scruffy. "When Mariam was an infant, she knew I was the dinner wagon, but oh. She followed Leonard; she'd perk right up when he was in the room, track him, even as a newborn. She loved him right from day one." Mrs. Pater laughs cautiously, sorrowfully. Mulder wonders what it costs her - what it has cost her - to say these things, to witness and survive their small realities.
"If you need anything, Mrs. Pater," he begins. She looks at him with her pleading eyes and her proud chin. In the apartment, someone is scraping a plate. In the apartment, someone is saying goodbye. "Well. If you need anything, please let me know."
She smiles, pushes the door open. "Sure will," Mrs. Pater says. "Sure will."
The pie cools on the counter. Mrs. Pater's voice has followed him inside, like a storm of sheeting rain. He knows her secrets, the unspeakable code comprehended by everyone who has seen.
The priest has gone. Scully's sheets are creased where the man sat, betraying none of his ritual purpose. Mulder can tolerate the thought of the man if he can think of her fingers, softness around which the rosary must have been wrapped loosely, like a cat's cradle. In his mind, it is a nursery rhyme. In his mind, it's a child's song, tumbling free with sunny breeze. A lullaby, this peace that has overcome her, finally now as the night draws dense, darker.
Surely it is snowing outside, surely there is ice being laid in layers, fastening them into these moments, this place of mass so mountainous it is almost weightless. He feels he could sit at her bedside for the rest of nights, forever, as long as it takes until sleep slides into his mind like a knife, a burst of crimson pain and then a blessed black depth, a lightless glacier.
He has accused and has blamed today, and the stained blade of it sits in his thoughts, waiting to enact its justice against him. He too has a sacrament. It will be over so soon, so soon. It will never be enough.
For a minute at a time, her eyes stay open. They are still the color of a frosted cloudless sky - /even our shadows are blue with cold/ - but paradoxically are also still filled with unimaginable warmth. He has exhausted words; they are fragile in his throat, too raw to speak. They feel almost newborn, too exposed to suffer the acid tears, the choked sobs.
She has come back from another round of tests, the last the doctors can justify. Her arms are needle-marked, her lips chapped. Her breaths thin like drips of blood diluted in a glass of water.
This is before the unshadowed film, before the ecstatic voices of the nurses, the doctor with his miracle-awe trapped between faulty eye and prescription glass lens.
Mulder is sitting in the chair, waiting. He thinks of her father, who would be proud of his sons, their sharp knowledge. Who would be proud of this daughter, her brave spine a careful curve delicate through her paper-translucent gown.
She turns over. She reaches out one hand to him, palm up, the wrist traced with blue and lavender. He takes it, folding her blessed fingers within his silent grasp.
The sea slips from her slowly. She is not afraid. There is strength in her yet. She does not let go of his hand.
This is before, before her family comes into the room, before the reverence of rebirth, before the unexplained mercy.
"Thank you," she says in this before, and he shakes his head, not understanding. She stills him with her eyes, and he does not look away. The ocean is shifting. He tries to hold it, the tide. Tries, and tries to let it go.
"Thank you," she says again, whispers. "I know I'm not much company right now, but I'm very glad you're here."
Here until he passes from this coiled length of water. Until there is a word that illustrates her grace. Until her faith fails to sustain her, and him.
Handling the pan with a plaid dishtowel, he puts the pie in a box lid and covers it with aluminum foil. He still does not know the words, but he knows they must nonetheless be said.
He knocks softly. "Scully?"
No answer, but her car is parked out front. He knocks again. No shuffle on the other side of the door, no response. She has not used the chain. He gains entry quickly, sleet dripping from his coat.
"Hello?" Her feet are motionless on the couch. He can see her chest rise and fall.
He puts the pie on the kitchen table, hangs his coat on a chair. He tiptoes back into the living room. She is curled with her cheek pressed to the arm of her couch, her hand flat in a novel. He glides her glasses off her face. A strand of hair is pulled with them, tickling her nose.
She wakes with a soft gasp, eyes blurry-bright. "What 's'matter?"
He chuckles. "Sorry. Nothing. I brought you some pie."
She yawns and rubs her left eye sleepily. "I've eaten all day long." She blinks at him thoughtfully. "Mom was disappointed you didn't take us up on the invitation."
He diverts the subject. "Did you have pie?"
"No. Charlie's wife did indeed make her famous sweet potato casserole." She scrunches her features, then stretches. "It's not my favorite dish. Too sweet." She looks at him for a moment. "You didn't actually bake a pie, did you, Mulder?"
"You made it from scratch?"
"That wasn't your question. But I baked it myself, yeah."
She sits up. "Does that mean you turned on the oven all by yourself?"
"I also opened the box. It was exhausting."
"Hmm." She trots into the kitchen. "It smells good." She lifts the foil. "Mmm. Nothing smells better than that. And it's still a little bit warm. Good." She gestures toward the refrigerator. "Mom sent me home with a lot of turkey, if you want a sandwich. Help yourself."
She turns and looks at him when he doesn't move from the doorway. "Or you could just have pie."
He smiles, looks at his feet. Sighs. "Honestly, I'm not all that hungry. And the pie has a funny imitation-leather membrane going on. I think I over-cooked it."
"That sounds very appetizing," she responds, stepping to the cabinet for a plate. She removes two and places them on the table. She walks over to stand in front of him. "If you're not hungry," she says gently, "why are you here?"
He looks at her and shakes his head. "Will the pie keep 'til tomorrow?"
"Sure," she says, puzzled. She steps closer to him. "Why?"
"I need to say thanks. One of my neighbors is dying, and it reminded me . . . that I need to say thanks."
Now she shakes her head. "What-- "
He crushes her to him. The wind whistles cradlesongs beneath the sleet, the ocean churns with ice. Scully lifts her eyes to his, their mouths brush against each other, and in the silence of their breathing, he begins to speak.
The cold roughs the windowpanes but is no rival to this intimacy, this sacred heat. The last thing he remembers saying is, "Tell me about your father. Tell me about the sea."
And she answers, "Tell me about the stars. And tell me about basketball."
He smiles. He kisses salt water from her eyes and traces constellations on her shoulders. They rest tangled together, their limbs undefined.
"Was it sleeting when you drove over?" she asks much later, quietly.
"Yes," he whispers into her hair.
" 's dangerous. Could've wrecked the car." She rolls over and presses her head under his chin.
"It wasn't too bad. I'm here, right?" I'm here. Her breath is at the hollow of his throat. Here. Until there is a substance larger than love.
Author's Notes: "The Winter Ship" is a Sylvia Plath poem from which the title of this story and one other phrase in it - /even our shadows are blue with cold/ - are taken. Gwendolyn Brooks wrote the story's summary in "A Sunset of the City". Both are used without permission.
I didn't stick to the Scullyfic challenge at all, but this is nonetheless a humble gift for and inspired by Shari and Dasha. I hope you each had beautiful birthdays.